Julie Sheppard, 60, spent a month in the United States campaigning for Barack Obama. The retired former communications chief from Lyme Regis, Dorset, tells us about her experience.
Going to the States to campaign for Obama was a personal and political journey. I’ve been going there for 40 years and on one trip, I had to have an emergency operation to have my appendix removed. I remember lying alone on a hospital trolley and just wanted someone to say I’d be okay. Instead what I actually got was a hospital administrator saying to me ‘How’re you going to pay for this?’ That stayed with me.
When Obama was elected and he put the Obamacare health reform onto the statute book it ensured 30 million extra Americans had health insurance, and those with pre-existing conditions couldn’t be denied insurance. But Republican candidate Mitt Romney said the first thing he would do was repeal this. I was so incensed I thought, ‘I’m going to do my utmost to stop him being elected’.
So I contacted the Obama campaign and went to Washington, close to Virginia, one of the key battleground states and a natural Republican territory which might have swung back. Obama managed to mobilise 770,000 unpaid volunteers who were deployed in the key states. People were transported there in vans, put up in accommodation and fed – some for months.
I would phone voters or canvas on the ground, and organise the other volunteers. I would tell those planning to vote for Obama what they needed to take to polling stations, and whether they needed a lift. If they were Romney supporters I would quickly but politely get off the phone. A lot of those I canvassed lived in real poverty, and the last thing on their minds was voting, so I had to get those likely to vote for Obama to do so.
It was tight coming up to the election, and many were undecided. With Obama there was often disillusionment with what he’d achieved. If I got an undecided voter I would tell them four years is not long when you’ve taken over such a mess, in a recession, and Republicans blocked many Obama initiatives. I also pointed out Obama’s achievements, such as saving the Detroit car industry. I also asked if they thought Romney had anything in common with normal people.
I got various reactions – some hostile – but I think I made a difference. I thought being British would be a disadvantage and people would say “what’s it got to do with you?” But it was the opposite. Democrat supporters were delighted I’d gone there – they would hug me, and take me to dinner to thank me.
On election day we knew who was planning to vote when and I’d ring them to check they had. We would tell them how close it was and persuade them to get out. We also knew who had voted and who hadn’t. It was personalised. I don’t know if that would be possible in this country.
We got reports about voting machine malfunctions – where votes for Obama would be going to Romney. That sent ripples of anxiety round the office. The day was a roller-coaster of emotion and I felt sick to my stomach because of my personal investment to the cause.
I finally realised we’d won when in a bar with other Democrats. At 10.45pm it wasn’t clear but within 15 minutes Ohio and Colorado came in and Obama suddenly went past the magic 270 electoral college votes and I knew we’d got it – and I burst into tears. Everyone was elated. We waited to see Obama’s acceptance speech and I staggered out the bar at 2.30am, worse for wear but very relieved.
I was delighted Obama won overall, but most pleased he won Virginia. I felt it was a job well done. The Obama campaign played a blinder. I just wish he hadn’t given us that scare in the first presidential debate where he looked like he didn’t want to be president.
Going to the States was the best thing I’ve ever done. I met some amazing people and felt part of something wonderful. I just hope the Republicans will let him govern for the next four years.