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Campaigning in the 51st state

In his final post before hitting the road, Jonn Elledge reports on a febrile atmosphere amongst the

By Jonn Elledge

Catherine Mayer is from Wisconsin, but for the last few years has headed Time magazine’s London bureau. So it’s a testament to how keen the Democrats are to win her home state that they’re still taking the time to ask for her vote. A lot.

“They ring me about once a day at the moment,” she told a meeting at last month’s Labour conference. “That’s how good Democrats Abroad are.”

She’s not alone. Bill Bernard, the organisation’s UK chair, says that they’re trying to ring all registered voters once, and anyone in a swing state at least twice. Their Republican counterparts are engaged in similar get out the vote efforts, using emails and adverts in American newspapers such as Stars and Stripes.

Over 6 million Americans are thought to live overseas – more than live in well over half the states – and the ex-pat community has become increasingly politically active. Democrats Abroad reckon their membership figures have quadrupled in the last four years (“Bush was our biggest recruiter!” Bernard says gleefully). Last spring it held its own primary election (Obama won, by a landslide). It also hosted a debate/party in Portchester Hall on the day of the Super Tuesday primaries – an event so popular that the authorities started squawking about overcrowding and demanding they cleared people out.

Republicans Abroad are slightly less hyperactive – unlike their counterparts, they’re not an official part of the party machine – but has still been pushing their voters to turn out. This year it has run events including a young Republicans happy hour, and hosted the likes of Rudy Giuliani.

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In contrast to their colleagues back home, the two groups also do a lot of work together. In recent months their combined forces have been found outside tube stations, bars and investments bank – anywhere that Americans congregate – in the hope of helping voters through the bewildering process for registering from overseas. “The important thing is not to intimidate anyone,” says Republican chair Miki White Bowman. “So we don’t tell people our views or which party we’re from.”

Most of these events are more about getting voters to turn out than to switch sides. Even so, both groups reckon their efforts can swing elections. Eight years ago, George Bush got enough overseas votes in Florida to win him the state, and thus the presidency. On the other side of the fence, Rachelle Valladeres, the former international chair of Democrats Abroad, says that overseas voters were the key to electing at least two Congresswomen.

That said, under US federal law you can only vote in the last state you lived in. And because much of London’s ex-pat community work in the City, a disproportionate number vote in distinctly un-swingy New York.

Others have found their vote counts for even less. Valladeres grew up in swing state New Hampshire, but can only vote in Washington D.C. – the safest Democratic vote in the nation. “I’d rather vote in New Hampshire. At least it’d mean something,” she says – adding with just a hint of bitterness, “Even Mondale won the district.”

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