U. Mississippi Student Dedicates Semester To Obama Campaign

This story was written by Natalie Dickson, Daily Mississippian
Sleeping in his car and on strangers couches was hardly what Jake McGraw expected to be doing during what would have been the fall semester of his junior year.

However, while most college students spent election night and the nights leading up to Nov. 4 as outside observers, this University of Mississippi student saw the 2008 presidential election from a different angle.

The night before election night I slept three hours in my car the night before that, I slept on someones couch. I dont know whose, McGraw said.

In late July 2008, McGraw decided to halt his plans for the semester and work as a field organizer for the Obama campaign in southwestern Colorado.

It was the kind of opportunity you could not pass up and an experience you could never replace, he said.

The opportunity to volunteer full-time for the Obama campaign came only after an intensive 6-week internship program that began in mid-June.

It was never part of my plan, he said of his decision to stay with the Obama campaign throughout the semester.

The original plan was to merely participate in a program the Obama campaign had set up for college and graduate school students during the summer, then to return to school.

McGraw originally applied to work for the Hillary Clinton campaign; however, by the time he had been invited to move on to the interview portion of the application process, he had become an Obama supporter.

So he switched plans.

After some help from professors, McGraw found and applied to the Organizing Fellows program, a program that deployed 3,600 full-time volunteers in 17 swing states across the nation.

Thats when I was first slapped in the face, he said when recounting his reaction to the 3-day intensive training session in Denver, which began June 14.

McGraw thought the 6-week program was going to be far from the typical summer internship and far from expectations.

I packed my golf clubs, if that tells you anything, he said.

The golf clubs remained packed away, though.

After training, the volunteers were shipped to different regions of Colorado to begin establishing ground support for the Obama campaign. Around nine of the volunteers were sent to Pueblo, one of four Colorado Obama offices, he said.

The Obama campaign assigned two of the rural counties in southwestern Colorado to McGraw. And upon arrival, he began the task of calling each registered Democrat in the area, asking for their time and support.

Only about 30 percent of the Democrats were Obama supporters, so some responses were hostile.

But after hundreds of calls, the beginnings of a volunteer base took shape.

Towards the end of the 6-week period, the Obama campaign asked McGraw to stay throughout the rest of the election as a field organizer in Colorado. After about a week of indecision, McGraw decided he could not pass up the opportunity.

He dropped all of his former plans in Oxford and devoted everything to the campaign.

Soon, McGraws two counties grew to seven, and from Aug. 1 to Nov. 4, he spent his days calling and organizing volunteers, knocking on doors and scheduling rallies.

The campaign gave McGraw more responsibilities because he had earned the trust of the others working in the campaign.

Alex Blum, a physician from Los Angeles, delayed taking his first job to participate in the Organizing Fellows program as well. Both he and McGraw were assigned to regions near Pueblo, Colo.

Blums responsibilities were similar to McGraws in that he worked in a rural areaof Colorado and had to build support, basically from the ground up.

After his six weeks, Blum returned to work, but not before requesting that McGraw be assigned to take over his counties, Blum said.

I didnt want to hand over all this work to someone I didnt know or trust, he said.

By working in the Obama campaign, the field organizers were building and empowering the people within the communities to become involved in the campaign and election process.

Organizers such as Blum and McGraw would regularly stay in the office until midnight, and often well after midnight, finishing up the days work.

This is the difference between a regular campaign and a movement, Blum said.

Obamas campaign will stand apart in history as one that effectively generated and utilized huge amounts of support, and Obama was able to establish far more support centers in far more states than John McCain, associate professor of political science Tim Nordstrom said.

In Indiana, for example, Obama had 42 campaign office locations, according to the www.my.barackobama.com Web site, as compared to McCains zero offices.

To be involved with such a campaign offers a truly unique experience. The circumstances surrounding Obamas campaign may just be a one-time scenario, but many of the strategies, such as the increased and creative use of technology, will surely be mimicked in future campaigns, Nordstrom said.

However, aspects such as the utilization of technology are easily copied the characteristic that truly sets the 2008 Obama campaign apart is the fact that thousands of people, such as McGraw, stopped life to help campaign, according to professor of political science Bob Brown.

I have trouble seeing this kind of ground swell again, Brown said. Who knows what kind of path this will put (McGraw) on? This kind of experience can change people.

McGraw plans to continue being involved in the work he began this summer by returning to school in the spring and continuing his former responsibilities.

McGraw wants to return to work in the group One Mississippi, an organization that first taught him the importance of building grassroots support.

On election night, after spending the past two previous nights sleeping in places other than a bed, McGraw watched the results in a small room, while taking last minute telephone calls.

McGraw said after Ohio was officially declared a blue state, he knew Obama would become president-elect.

I could barely get a word out because I was so emotional, he said.

The night ended in a party attended by about 50 of the volunteers who had helped in Colorado.

I dont think there was a dry eye in the room, he said.

The next day, he packed up his office and drove home to Oxford.

It is an experience with no regrets, he said, but it is an experience that will require some time to reflect upon.

The next issue for him and for all of the people and communities the campaign volunteers mobilized and empowered is what will be next in McGraws words: Whats the next big project?
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