NEAL P. GOSWAMI
BENNINGTON -- Derek McDonald was enveloped in his school work and his life during President Barack Obama's first campaign for the presidency. This year, with life having thrown him a few curves, McDonald signed on to help re-elect him.
The 25-year-old 2006 graduate of Mount Anthony Union High School will return to the University of Vermont in January to complete his final semester and earn his degree. He took a leave from school this semester after earning a job in New Hampshire as a field organizer to help Obama win the small swing state.
McDonald supported Obama in 2008, but admittedly, did little to pitch in. "Last time I was kind of involved with school and didn't really think I had the time to do anything. I donated like $10 to the campaign and thought I had contributed my part," he said.
But McDonald's father, Kevin McDonald, soon lost his job, a victim of the quickly souring economy, he said. "My parents told me they could keep paying for school for me, but I thought it would be a hardship on them. So I took some time off. I worked and I supported myself. I realized how difficult it is to actually do that. That really was the first time that it hit me that I wasn't as insulated as maybe I thought I had been from things that were happening outside my little bubble. I really thought that this [the election] was going to affect me," McDonald said.That was motivation enough to begin interning in June in Burlington, doing whatever he could to boost Obama's candidacy. In August, that turned into a job in New Hampshire's Belknap County, a conservative stronghold that went for Sen. John McCain in 2008.
"I guess I just thought a Romney presidency would not be in my best interests. I know there are a lot of people out there struggling, and I was one of them for a little bit. I didn't have a great job. I don't have a great job," McDonald said.
McDonald said the eastern part of the county he oversaw was a world apart from the progressive enclave of Burlington. But he and the volunteers he recruited worked day after day to call potential voters, knock on doors and organize Democrats and independents to rally behind the president.
Some days were harder than others, he said.
"For the most part, I was always cautiously optimistic. It was sometimes really tough to gauge where we were really at, knowing that we were in such a conservative area. It really was not very friendly territory for Democrats. Just in our campaign office we would have people walk by and yelling racist slurs and stuff like that. It was kind of hard, but throughout it all I was pretty confident. Whenever I was feeling down I would just go to Nate Silver's blog on The New York Times and say, ‘OK, his forecast is still looking pretty good,'" McDonald said.
"The lows were definitely lower in Belknap County than they were anywhere in Vermont. But I had some great volunteers and I think that's really what helped mollify the effects of being in such a conservative area," he added.
For much of the summer, Obama appeared to be holding a constant lead in polls over former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. And then the first debate in Denver turned out to be a debacle. "He wasn't on his game," McDonald said.
"I think his problem was he was too professorial and speaking in paragraphs, which isn't really going to stick with a lot of Americans," McDonald said. "It wasn't the strong debate performance we were looking for."
The next month until election day was spent rallying Obama's supporters and ensuring that Belknap County was part of the vaunted Obama "ground game" that identified likely supporters and got them to the polls. On election day McDonald was at the campaign office by 5 a.m., ready to respond to any problems or irregularities. His trained volunteers were out in the field, tracking and calculating and reporting back.
Obama, as expected, lost in McDonald's territory. But the president performed well enough to help keep New Hampshire in the blue column. "We kept it close enough, as close as we needed to, obviously," he said.
McDonald did not get a chance to meet Obama during the campaign. Many of his volunteers did, however. And he was able to get his father into an event with Vice President Joe Biden. "My dad shook his hand and goes, ‘Give ‘em Hell, Joe!'" said McDonald, who plans to attend Obama's second inauguration in January.
After celebrations and closing down the office, McDonald has had time to reflect on his work, and about his future. Working on future campaigns is a strong likelihood, he said, or working in government. But as "more of a behind-the-scenes kind of guy," McDonald said he does not expect to seek elected office himself.
"The campaign was the most stressful, grueling experience I've had, but it was exhilarating and I'd do it again in a second. Really rewarding work. Meeting a lot of great people. Once I finish up school, I could definitely see myself trying to work on a campaign, or something in politics. I haven't gotten it pegged down exactly yet," he said.