It takes a certain strength of character to vote against just about everyone of your skin colour because of something you see as a moral issue. So to go to an Obama rally with your mouth covered with red duck tape bearing a slogan accusing the senator of killing babies must take a quite colossal nerve.
I almost admired the young black man waiting inside the rally enclosure, staring fixedly at the crowd as it filed in. But still, the guy was wasting his time. We’d already been confronted in the hour long queue by four anti-abortion campaigners, standing silently holding posters of aborted foetuses, while the ring-leader harangued us through a megaphone. But all they got in response was a rousing chorus of, ‘Yes we can’.
‘Oh yes we can murder babies, you mean?’ he yelled, but someone shouted back, ‘You need a bigger speaker man, we can’t hear you.’
This wasn’t really his audience. The night before the election, in the brand new swing state of North Carolina, this was a crowd of true believers who just wanted to catch one last glimpse of their leader before the campaign ended.
They stood for an hour in the driving rain, listening to a succession of lesser speakers explaining the need to get the vote out or running through the roll call of local Democratic candidates.
These guys would have waited through anything for that moment when Obama finally appeared on stage. The girl next to me had driven three hours from Georgia, on her own, just to see him in the flesh. When the rain began, the hundreds in the queue surged forward, breaking through the first line of security barriers. Once close enough to see, they stood waiting patiently, just like everybody else.
In the crowd I spotted a woman with a buggy bearing a sign reading, ‘Obama rocks me – born Democrat 2008.’ There was a boy in a t-shirt reading, ‘Obama is not a muslim, but I am – and I approve this message.’ There was a girl telling her friends that her mother in Alaska had been handing out bumper stickers reading, ‘Wasila moms for Obama-Biden.’
There were hundreds of young black men and women, who the numbers say would not normally be voting at all. Yet when one speaker asked the crowd who had cast their ballot, almost every hand went up.
The Senator spoke for about twenty minutes. He talked briefly of his grandmother, who had died the previous night, and for a moment seemed to be crying. But otherwise it was the same stump speech I’d already heard a dozen times on the TV and radio over the last fortnight.
The words weren’t what mattered, though. What mattered to these people was that Obama had come far enough to be able to speak to them: Democrats who had lost hope that anyone who wasn’t called Clinton could ever beat the Republican machine and African Americans who had never really believed they would see this in their lifetime. Without complaint, they put up with the queues and the cramp and the protesters and the rain, just to see him speak.
Before the event, my photographer had told me that he was so thoroughly sick of the whole thing that, were he an American, he wouldn’t vote for either of them. As we drove away from the rally, he admitted that he’d changed his mind.
Once it was over, without so much as a second’s pause, the crowd turned to leave. A few lined the nearby roads, on the offchance they would see his car pass by, but most were happy just to go. They’d got what they came for.