Not long ago, I wrote a letter to certain American newspapers. I pointed out that it seemed unfair that only American citizens get to choose the most powerful person on the planet. In my letter I asked for advice about how foreigners like me might affect the outcome of the presidential election – without of course doing anything untoward.
I sent it by email to George Bush’s local paper in Crawford, Texas. I sent it to papers in Boston and Pittsburgh (for John Kerry) and Washington (for Ralph Nader). And I sent it to local papers for Dick Cheney and John Edwards.
Despite supplying contact details in London (including what I took care to call my “cellphone”) I heard nothing. But I never expected that swinging the result of the world’s most important election, and changing the course of history would be easy.
My next step was to log onto a popular political blog, Command-Post.org, and post a similar message. Then I visited internet chatrooms and innocently dropped comments such as: “Hey, interesting that so many foreigners are following the US presidential election… what do you guys think?” One response was this: “Well who givces a chit, they aint gott no say ini t.”
Naturally I also got in touch with the candidates themselves, through their official websites. They replied immediately – literally within a second after I pressed “send”. The message from JohnKerry.com was lengthy, and seemed not designed for activists from overseas. (“Your contribution,” it dully noted, “ is not tax-deductible as a charitable contribution for Federal income tax purposes.”) Bush-Cheney’s reply was zippier. “Thank you for your interest in Bush-Cheney ‘04! With your commitment to re-electing President Bush you can be a leader in his campaign. As a Bush volunteer you will be a key member of the President’s grassroots team.”
This was more like it.
“We challenge you,” the message continued, “to accomplish up to six important tasks: 1) Recruit five other Bush volunteers. 2) Sign up ten friends or family to receive Bush email updates. 3) Write letters to the editor & call talk radio shows. 4) Host a party for the president. 5) Help turn out the vote for President Bush. 6) Volunteer for the president at local events.”
Well, I’d already failed (3). Task (5) was logistically impossible. But the others looked appealing. Task (4) in particular seemed a wonderful idea: a party in north London – a barbecue, perhaps – to help George Bush.
As for task (2): quite fortuitously, I received an email from a company offering a mailing list of some 1.7m US college students’ email addresses. But on reflection I couldn’t afford the $370 fee. Anyway, campaigning by email was not working. I’d be better off using my powers of persuasion over the phone.
So I called American friends and acquaintances: a guy in publishing from Chicago, the woman who gave me my first job (now in Boston), a Californian inventor of cheap space rockets, a representative of Massachusetts’ gun lobby and a society hostess in Houston. My former editor, not untypically, was voting for Kerry. “It’s in my genes,” she said firmly.
I tried expatriate Americans in London. (Sitting targets!) I found numbers for practically every American I’d ever met. One call was to a friendly former neighbour, Bill, who lived in the flat above mine till four years ago. This required some catching up – I asked after his wife, Julie, and their dog; and Bill seemed glad to hear I’d become a father. But he was voting for Kerry, he said bluntly. “And there is nothing you could say to make me vote for Bush, because I think he is an idiot.”
Others too seemed decided. I didn’t want to spoil my relationships. So I decided to use the all-American technique of cold-calling, using numbers dialled at random.
I phoned Florida first: 001 for the US, then the area code and finally a range of random digits. Astoundingly, the first 12 calls resulted in a pre-recorded message telling me that number had been disconnected. There was something eerie about this, reminiscent of the people who disappeared off Florida’s electoral register in 2000.
I switched to Texas. The first couple of people said they didn’t want to speak to me, or denied being at home. The third was a family man in his 50s, originally from Iran. He told me he was voting for Kerry because he considered Bush a menace to society. “When I came here in 1975, we had a slogan, ‘United We Stand’. Now, it’s ‘Divided We Fall’.” Forty-five per cent of voters are diehard Republicans, he said, and 45 per cent diehard Democrats. “You’ll never persuade us. You need to find the 10 per cent who are undecided. If you change their minds – even a few of them – you could well affect the result.” After all, the result in 2000 was determined by just a few hundred voters out of hundreds of millions.
It took a lot of calls – all late at night, owing to the time difference – but eventually I did find an undecided voter, in Columbus, Ohio. Unwilling to supply his real name, he agreed there could be no harm in calling him John. He was a cabinet maker, in his mid-50s. Did he think the opinion of foreigners mattered in the US election? “No, I don’t think it really matters.” Was there anything I could say to affect his decision? What if I gave him my number in London, and promised to follow his advice next time Tony Blair ran for prime minister? “No, but thanks.” Did he know which party won the most votes in Ohio last time? “That’s a toughie. No.” How did he think he would eventually reach a decision? “I will pray.” Would it help if I prayed with him – right now, over the phone? “No,” he said again. “No, I don’t think it would.”
This was discouraging, but I wasn’t ready to give up. Lying in bed, that night, I decided to phone Bill again. I’d tell him I was holding a barbecue for Dubya, and ask him to come along.
1029 words. First published 12 October 04. © John-Paul Flintoff