The Energy Issue

Not that one, the other one

SALEM, NH - Ask someone to describe What It’s Like on the campaign trail, and there’s one word you’re pretty much guaranteed to hear: “energy.”

It’s the right word, too. There’s something truly electric about politics-up-close. Whether born of our collective romance with politics, or of the nearness of the candidate-celebrities who practice it, or of the simple distillation of our differences into single, shared moments, the campaign trail is charged. And in a good way—with what Barack Obama might call “light, not heat.”

But to be truly electric, of course, you’ve got to have the negative along with the positive.

With that in mind, we clamped a voltage meter onto an Obama rally that took place Sunday afternoon, analyzed the readout, and can now share with you the minute-by-minute results:

3:45 The doors of Salem High School are scheduled to open for the rally. A line of several hundreds of people, bundled for hours of line waiting in thirty-degree weather, snakes around the school’s perimeter. Members of the press, generally less bundled, have formed their own ad hoc waiting area at the front of the line.

3:48 An Obama staffer emerges to announce a delay: agents are in the midst of a security sweep. “They told us it’d take, like, ten or fifteen minutes…but that was half an hour ago,” he says, smiling. The few members of his audience who respond to him do so with solemn nods and/or rolled eyes.

3:50 The crowd begins chanting: “Three forty-FIVE! Three forty-FIVE!” They’re surprised to be kept waiting past the event’s stated open-door time. The press people gaze at them with a mixture of amusement and pity.

3:52 A twenty-something guy in skinny jeans and a red and white “” trucker hat crowd-surfs his way to the front of the line, passed along hand to hand. The crowd whoops. Print press look up briefly from their Blackberrys/notepads/conversations. Photo and video press lift their cameras above their heads, but too late: the surfer has been let down. “Can you do another take on that?” a cameraman shouts to him, only half joking.

3:53 The surfer goes back toward the end of the line, sans second take.

3:55 The school’s doors open. “Okay, ready. Press only, right now,” the staffer says. Media members stream inside; the crowd cheers.

4:00 Another Obama staffer directs us to sit in the back rows of the auditorium. We settle in to the last six rows, shedding layers of clothing, camera bags, video equipment, notebooks, and laptop satchels.

4:05 Another Obama staffer, a perky, twenty-something woman, approaches. “Sorry, guys, can you actually move to the last three rows? We need to reserve these”—she motions to rows four, five, six— “for the real people.”

4:06 We oblige, re-gathering our possessions and condensing ourselves into the farthest three rows.

4:07 The Real People begin filing into the auditorium. Sara Evans’s “Born to Fly” blares over loudspeakers.

4:08 Select Real People are led onstage to a double row of royal-blue-plastic chairs arranged on a riser behind the podium and before a blue, red, and white banner: “Change We Can Believe In:” A staffer gives them signs both hand-painted (“BaROCK the vote,” “Barack Rocks”) and printed (“Obama ‘08”) to display on their laps.

4:09 Press members check Blackberrys/take notes on pads/take notes on laptops/write full stories on laptops/survey the audience/take photos of particularly colorful people in the audience/make small talk with their neighbors/yawn/doze. This continues, uninterrupted, for approximately thirty minutes. Marvin Gaye’s “Mercy, Mercy Me” (ostensibly because “things ain’t what they used to be, no, no”); Elvis’s “A Little Less Conversation, A Little More Action”; Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter”; KT Tunstall’s “Suddenly I See”; Nikka Costa’s “Everybody Got Their Something”; and Destiny’s Child’s “Lose My Breath” provide a peppy/inspiring/eclectic-if-sometimes-slightly-odd soundtrack.

4:35 The crowd is getting restless. The press is getting bored.

4:40 An Obama staffer standing in the aisle near the stage begins shouting: “Fired up!” The crowd next to him responds, “Ready to go!” The chanting spreads. It lasts (“Fired UP! Ready to GO!…Fired UP! Ready to GO!”) about a minute before dying down.

4:42 The crowd is restless again.

4:44 The same fired up Obama staffer starts a new chant: “Be part of something great…Obama in ’08…”

“Be part of someone who’s late…” a reporter mutters behind me.

4:46 Press people began speculating on the cause of the lateness. “Maybe he had to stop and change a tire,” one suggests. “The change candidate, and all…”

4:47 “Well, they were over an hour late starting in Manchester this morning,” a woman says. “It just, you know, compounds.”

4:48 That seems to settle it.

5:00 The Clinton event many of us were planning on jetting to after Obama’s 3:45 rally is beginning now. It’s in Hampton, twenty-six miles away. Well played, Team Obama.

5:15 Two fire marshals arrive in the auditorium, removing overflow cameramen from their encampments in the auditorium’s aisles. Cameramen are visibly annoyed, but oblige.

5:20 The music dies down. “Ladies and gentlemen…” a female voice booms over the loudspeakers. The crowd cheers. “Uh, please remember to turn off your cell phones,” she says. The energy plummets.

5:25 A staffer walks onstage. The audience cheers. He hangs a royal-blue-and-white “Change We Can Believe In” poster on the podium, taking his time with it. Video staff, crouching on risers next to their tripods, jump to their feet to man their cameras.

5:26 The crowd begins clapping. Someone up front shouts, “Obama!”

5:27 The staffer walks offstage. The clapping dies down. The energy plummets more.

5:28 The crowd is quiet. U2’s “One” is playing. “Wake me when it’s over,” the man behind me tells his neighbor.

5:29 The auditorium lights dim. The audience cheers again.

5:30 The lights go back on. The audience sighs.

5:35 A group of kids a few rows down, about six or seven years old, begins chanting: “O-ba-MA—O-ba-MA.” It doesn’t catch on.

5:36 I turn around. Wake-Me-When-It’s-Over is slumped in his chair, a scarf pulled over his face.

5:37 “Ladies and gentlemen…” a voice booms. “Please welcome…”—the crowd cheers again—“…Susan Sundell!” The cheers subside.

5:38 Sundell, a Salem resident, introduces herself as a former GOP member, and current Independent, who is supporting Obama. “I stand here today no longer an unhappy Republican,” she tells the audience. “I’ve changed my party affiliation, and am now a card-carrying hopemonger.” The crowd cheers again, loudly.

5:46 Sundell has concluded her speech. The crowd is still cheering. U2’s “The City of Blinding Lights” is playing.

5:47 Barack Obama strides onstage. The audience rises to its feet, screaming and waving signs. The energy is back.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.