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The View from the Boiler Room

“If we get 3.3 million, we win. If we get 3.6 million, we win by a landslide. But really, all we need is 3.3 million total voters turning out. 3.3 million little, tiny wins.” Our campaign manager, Ken, is standing in front of the map on the TV screen, pointing at our projected turnout numbers for the end of election day, which is today. Eddie and I are hunched over our laptops, trying to make sure the code is running correctly and the projections are defensible.

We’ve been working in the boiler room – so-called because as the day goes on, it gets hotter and hotter – non-stop since before polls opened that morning. Ken has been working non-stop for months.

Each part of the Marquita Bradshaw for Senate Campaign team in the boiler room has its own folding table. The PR team is stationed in the middle of the room, handling statements issued on behalf of our candidate, mostly on social media but also to news stations. Our lead lawyer, who’s in charge of our pending lawsuit against the secretary of state for refusing to release early voting numbers, shares a table with voter protection, which handles calls about voter intimidation, lines that are too long, poll watcher issues, and anything else that would hinder the democratic process. Behind voter protection, the field director has a table where he scours real-time voter data in VAN (a democratic database tool) to track trends. Occasionally he’ll ask us questions – How does this figure compare to 2016? Which counties have had rural hospital closures in the past few years? – and we’ll scurry to find the answers.

A camera crew, filming a documentary about our candidate, intermittently enters, in quiet moments asking us questions and in chaotic ones, observing as a fly on the wall. That’s the vibe of the boiler room: lulls of tense waiting punctuated by bursts of activity as a legal challenge lurches forwards, a press release is needed, or a voter protection issue arises. Those are the moments when the boiler room really starts to boil.

The IT guys bustle around between all the folding tables, ensuring that the 10-odd TVs lining the walls display correctly. Most of these TVs play live feeds of national news, coverage from local Memphis-based stations, or simply mirror someone’s laptop screen, but one, right in front of us, displays our map of voter turnout, the election-day contribution of our Bluebonnet Data team.

This is the map that Ken is gesturing to as he explains the various numbers displayed. The documentary crew and the PR team listen intently.

The map is a combination of hard historical data, projections for 2020 voting patterns, and real-time information fed in by volunteers who count voters at precincts throughout the state. It runs on Google Sheets, Python, and hope. On it are the numbers for recorded turnout across the state, breakdowns by voting methods (by mail, early in-person, and on election day), comparisons to previous years, and projections for precincts and counties that lack reliable data. In particular, we’re tracking seven key counties that contain Nashville, Memphis, Chattanooga, and other areas where we hope to turn out legions of democratic voters.

Near the top of the screen is the most important number: the projected total number of votes cast by the end of the day, the number that we hope will get to 3.3 million votes. This forecast jumps up and down with every new piece of information we get, and with it, the emotions of everyone in the boiler room.

We’ve been on edge for days. Although I was only called onto this campaign recently, just about everyone else has been pouring their heart into it for months. Still, I feel connected to everyone here. The team includes people from different places and different walks of life – I’m from Seattle, Eddie is from San Francisco, and the rest of the team is from all over the state of Tennessee – but we are bound together by our values. We all believe we’re fighting the good fight, we all believe we’re making a meaningful impact, and we all believe in better policies, better lives, and better representation for the people of Tennessee. We all believe in Marquita Bradshaw.

Everyone in the boiler room is exhausted. We’re in the home stretch of the campaign. The last few days have been long, hard, and stressful. Occasionally, tempers flare as people disagree or problems occur, but on our nightly end-of-day field call Ken’s voice brings us back into focus. Ken swells with pride and passion as he tells us how thankful he is for the contributions we all put in that day, despite the fact that he’s working harder than any of us. No matter how tiring the day has been, in Memphis I always go to bed filled with a sense of interconnectedness, purpose, and belonging to something greater than myself.

Before this election, I had never worked in politics before. I was apprehensive at the thought of joining a campaign and even more apprehensive of flying to Memphis to work and live with complete strangers through election day. But now, looking back, I can’t imagine it any other way. Bluebonnet gave me a chance to use my skill set for something that I care about, and, more importantly, introduced me to others doing the same. Through this fellowship, I got to support a candidate I believe in and join a community working tirelessly to affect change in a state where all the odds were stacked against them.

In the end, the odds didn’t turn out in our favor. There weren’t 3.3 million votes cast. We didn’t end up winning, and Tennessee remained a staunchly red state.

But what this election taught me is that campaigns aren’t truly one-shot processes with binary win/loss outcomes. There’s incremental progress to be made, and the political ecosystem is constantly changing as new voters enter and movements gain momentum. We ended up with the highest turnout in a Senate race in Tennessee history, with just over three million votes cast. Each of our seven key counties outperformed their turnout numbers from 2016. Those are new voices, clamoring to be heard, that won’t go away.

At one point during my time in Tennessee, a waitress at the hotel restaurant told me that she was planning on voting for the first time ever, and that she was going to vote for Marquita. As a 40-something woman who had worked a myriad of different jobs, she had never had time to pay attention to elections, she said. But this cycle, she had finally realized the importance of politics. She’ll vote again in the next election, and the one after that. She wasn’t the vote that put us over 3.3 million this time, but maybe she will be in four years.

That’s one little, tiny win in my book.


About the Author: John Randolph is a senior at Brown University studying Applied Math-Computer Science and Behavioral Decision Sciences. He is interested in computational social choice, data informed policy, and ultimate frisbee.

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