Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Election night

I was in a state of nervous excitement all day yesterday. To distract myself from the wait for election results, I made apple chutney from my mother's recipe - a favorite task at this time of year. I went to Yonkers to renew my driver's license, figuring that most people would be at the polls - which they were, I was in and out of the licensing office in fifteen minutes. And of course I voted, the first time I've had this privilege in over twenty years of living in the United States. 

On Sunday, I'd driven down to Pennsylvania with two Bronxville neighbors to help get out the vote for Obama in a hard fought corner of Philadelphia. It struck me then that new Americans like us might help tip the balance on election day. As we went door to door, we found Obama's most vigorous supporters among extended families of Indian and Middle Eastern origin, upwardly mobile new Americans who had populated a neighborhood of spanking new semi-detached homes. In nearby streets of older houses and shabby apartments, we saw as many lawn signs for McCain as for his opponent, and even the registered Democrats seemed much more equivocal. I haven't seen figures on how new citizens voted, though we know that the Hispanic turnout was much higher than usual and more Democratic, and this must have included many naturalized Americans. I hope that we had some impact, underlining Obama's appeal across so many ethnic and social groups.

The other kind of new voter is the young voter, and my daughters' generation turned out in droves for Obama. Young people haven't gotten this involved in an election since the 1960s. Some persuaded Republican parents to support Barack. And young people led the way in celebrations last night. Roxana, who's a student at George Washington University in the heart of DC, sent me this photo of the crowd outside the White House at midnight. Thousands of students streamed off the GW campus to Lafayette Square a few blocks away for a totally impromptu celebration of Obama's epic victory. Our younger daughter, Gina, who's on a gap year in Australia, insisted that we texted her the minute we knew who the next President would be, and she followed up with an excited phone call.

For Brits, accustomed to snap elections, American presidential campaigns seem interminable. But last night's astonishing result leaves me a believer in the benefits of a lengthy process. It is a process of education, not only of the candidates, but also of the voters. After months of traveling the country and meeting its people, a new President takes office with first hand knowledge of almost every corner of the United States. In this watershed election, we've also needed the time to change the political landscape - to register voters who hadn't turned out before, to test the candidates, to discuss the issues and above all, to energize the electorate.

Now Barack has done that - and the hard work really starts. But it's fantastic that he comes to the White House with a decisive and historic victory behind him, celebrated by the rest of the world as much as by Americans.