At 4 a.m. on Nov. 4, 2008, Weinberg junior Adam Yalowitz awoke to a phone call from Bill Clinton.
Yalowitz had spent the previous two months on leave from Northwestern canvassing in the swing state of Ohio. Early voting had begun Oct. 1, so by the time Election Day rolled around, “I’d done all I could do,” Yalowitz says.
He was still nervous, of course — a wave of nausea had hit by 6:30 the night before. “When you’re in Ohio on a presidential campaign, you’re in the middle of the storm,” Yalowitz says.
His “Get Out the Vote” director told him, “If we lose Ohio, we might lose the rest of the country. We can’t afford another four to eight years of Republican leadership, so don’t screw up.”
Yalowitz had left the office that night at 3 a.m., so he had slept about an hour by the time he received his robo-wake-up call. “‘You have to go win Ohio!” Clinton said. “It’s time to open up your campaign offices!’”
An hour later, Medill junior Molly Lister’s alarm went off. After securing tickets to Obama’s election night rally downtown, it seemed obvious that she and her friends would be forgoing their Global History lectures and spending the whole day in downtown Chicago rather than Harris 107.
Lister and her friends were the second group in line at 7 a.m., after two men who had slept there the night before. The two groups quickly merged, snacking on yogurt covered raisins and fruit, playing cards, and taking trips to a nearby Starbucks for the next eight hours.
MTV News and the Associated Press interviewed Lister as people drew Obama signs and American flags on the ground in chalk.
Weinberg junior Hannah Jaracz awoke with no intention of going downtown. A registered Republican, she had crossed party lines for the election. But her mother’s warnings of the inevitable crowd chaos had dissuaded her.
After hearing about other Northwestern students heading down, Jaracz said “what the hell” and crammed onto the packed Intercampus Shuttle with her roommate. On the ride in, she found out Jeff — a Loyola student with whom she had been good-friends-and-nothing-more since the sixth grade — was going to be downtown, too. She figured there wasn’t much of a chance of meeting up with him, though.
Communication senior Garen Checkley spent the afternoon marching up and down Michigan Avenue with fellow Communication senior Abby Miller. “Join the Obamanomenon!” their banner read.
Grant Park visitors joined in on the celebration, taking endless photos of Checkley, Miller and their creation. Reporters from Al Jazeera to the The Wall Street Journal approached Checkley with questions.
Soon after she had made it to her spot within the Grant Park crowd, Jaracz received a text message from Jeff, despite the faulty cell-phone reception. “J-15,” it read.
With her roommate’s clarification, Hannah looked up: they were currently in J-17, and with only a glance behind her she made eye contact with Jeff. “We were both downtown with millions of people and we were only 10 or so rows apart,” Hannah says. “It seemed like fate.”
Jeff took what was then a bold leap, confidently putting his arm around the girl he’d known for so long. Hannah’s anxiety did not fade for a minute during their two and a half hour time together, yet she still inherently felt “as if everything in the world was coming together.”
Lister watched pressed against the metal railing in the front row of Grant Park’s ticketed section. “I had bruises the next day,” she says. But sacrificing her body, a full night’s sleep, and the opportunity to go to the bathroom was worth it to Lister. Her parents called saying they’d seen her among what she called a “sea of faces” on CNN.
The countdown to the final results is a bit of blur, but once they called Virginia and Ohio, “I think we all looked at each other without saying anything, and we all just knew.”
Communication junior Allison Finn and her friends watched the five jumbo screen televisions and cheered riotously every time the CNN analyst declared a state “blue.” The collective energy of the crowd hit a tipping point though, when simulations imagining John McCain winning Democratic strongholds such as California showed he still would not have enough electoral college votes to muster a win.
Looking around the crowds, seeing “all ages, all races, all ethnicities … it was a true cross-section of the population,” Finn recognized that “it’s okay to be an idealist again.”
The TV in front of McCormick freshman Natalie Kennelley was substantially smaller. Kennelley was crammed in a room with 200 of her classmates at an international school in San Miguel County, New Mexico. She was stateside after growing up abroad, in places where anti-American graffiti adorned the alleyways and sides of buildings.
She spent most of her life in predominantly Muslim countries and was frequently self-conscious of the “American” stigma. She would conceal anything blatantly American and even pretend to be from Canada. But she linked arms with students from more than 80 nations, recognizing that the election was “not just about me and my country … everyone in the world was a shareholder.”
The screen in front of SESP senior Allie Bream was on a laptop in a van in Oman. Bream and her fellow study-abroad students were scheduled to go on an early morning hike in the Omani mountains, 10 hours ahead of Chicago time.
One student in the car had access to a wireless card, and was checking online results as they drove to their destination.
“It’s done. Obama won,” he said, in an unsettling and calm voice.
“Raw excitement, passion and relief,” Lister says of the moment CNN flashed “Obama Wins” in large capital letters. For the next 10 minutes, Lister joined in collective chants of “Obama” and “Yes we can”, waving a tiny American flag in unison.
In the back of the crowd, Checkley shared in the celebration with a member of Obama’s Chicago church standing beside him. “People were screaming and crying and hugging random strangers,” Checkley says. “It was super loud for about a minute and then, silence, dead silence. People hadn’t gotten over the shock phase.”
“We did it,” Kennelley overheard her best-friend whisper back in New Mexico, as tears openly flowed amid joyful roars. A stark contrast was drawn between the “internationals,” who outwardly celebrated, vocally cheering what was to them was the possibility of a reformed global atmosphere, and the American students who sat huddled, holding each other.
In Oman, Allie Bream’s van made a similar unexpected stop. Pulling off the road, the students got out in front of a tiny Omani restaurant, empty save for two men sitting at one of the few tables. The students were led by their program coordinators and the restaurant owners upstairs, into a modest apartment. They filed into a carpeted but bare room with a small TV in the corner.
Sitting cross-legged on the floor, the students watched Obama give his acceptance speech on Al-Jazeera in English. Bream’s eyes welled. The program directors began congratulating them, passing out candy.
“This is a big day for you,” they told them.
“Holy fuck, we won!” Yalowitz thought, one of four volunteers left in his Toledo office.
After hearing the news in Ohio, he piled into a volunteer’s car and headed toward a party at Union Hall. Passing the barbershop where volunteer Betty Amison had been coordinating her neighborhood efforts, Yalowitz asked to pull over.
Walking around the back, Yalowitz found “a group of little old black ladies just going nuts, dancing, jumping up and down,” he says. The women yelled “Adam’s here!” joining in a group embrace. “The bond that I have with this 65-year-old, five-foot-two black woman in inner-city Toledo will probably stay for the rest of my life,” Yalowitz says.
Finn and her Northwestern friends, alongside countless thousands of strangers, frolicked down Michigan Avenue, singing, dancing, crying, screaming. Waves of triumphant strangers prevented any car from getting through. People were “just … running. I’ve never felt so unified with a crowd.”
As Obama’s speech came to a close, the Grant Park crowds spilled into the streets. Hannah and Jeff’s walk back to the El was sealed with a kiss on the cheek. “We call [Obama] the matchmaker,” Jaracz says.
One year later, Jaracz and her boyfriend are still together. Checkley’s banner hangs on the ceiling of his bedroom, spanning two walls and reminding him of a story he’ll “be able to tell the grandkids about.” Finn channeled her newfound idealism by interning at a non-profit women’s human rights organization in New York City. Yalowitz shook off his “Obama Hangover” and returned to Northwestern with at least 10 couches across the United States he can sleep on. Lister’s friend from the eight-hour line became a facilitator for the Global Engagement Summit, an organization where she hopes to recreate that same phenomenon of collective action.
“I don’t think I had ever felt so involved before,” Lister says. “We grow up in a very fractured world,” she adds. “In that moment everyone was rooting for the same thing. I just want[ed] to be an American.”