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All eyes on Obama as campus revs up for Election Day

While students and local residents have exchanged expectant smiles and glances in passing on the street, on crowded buses, and across grocery checkout counters, few have been so daring as to call the outcome a foregone conclusion.

Photo: Jeremy Martin/The Chicago Maroon
Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama speaking to a crowd of tens of thousands of supporters in Indiana’s Highland Park on Friday. Many students are preparing to attend Election Day events across the city, including a University-sponsored viewing party in the Reynolds Club and Obama’s evening rally in Grant Park.

The excitement on campus and around Hyde Park has been palpable in the final days leading up to today’s election. While students and local residents have exchanged expectant smiles and glances in passing on the street, on crowded buses, and across grocery checkout counters, few have been so daring as to call the outcome a foregone conclusion. The hollow sound of knuckles pounding wood has seemed to resonate with increasing frequency in recent days.

“I’ve caught myself saying things like, ‘after Obama wins tomorrow,’ and then I have to stop myself and knock on wood three times, backtrack, ‘if Obama wins,’” said fourth-year David Brent, who, despite national polls pointing to a likely Barack Obama victory, said he was preparing himself for the worst “even though I hope that everything’s going to be OK.”

“We’re expecting and hoping,” said Chellie Akuamoah, a junior at the University of Chicago Lab Schools who along with sophomore Shacara Ledbetter was studying in Hutchinson Commons Monday night. “I’ll cry if Obama doesn’t win,” she said. Although neither is old enough to vote, they said they’d be watching the returns at home tonight.

Akuamoah said she felt a special connection to the Obamas. As a freshman at the lab schools, she was the “buddy” mentor of Barack Obama’s older daughter Malia, whom she still greets when they pass in the hall.

“I’m pretty excited, pretty optimistic,” said Ernesto Vargas, a graduate student in biophysics.

“I don’t know if he’ll win though. There’s the whole Bradley Effect thing,” chimed in biochemistry graduate student Amelia Randich, referring to a theory that claims that voters who publicly say they will support a black candidate may not do so when they arrive at the voting booth. “Maybe I’m just superstitious or something,” she said.

It’s a sentiment that has tempered much of the enthusiasm that has been otherwise been unbounded as students, faculty, and staff have participated in voter mobilization, canvassing trips, and election night party planning.

Scores of students traveled to Indiana over the weekend to participate in get-out-the-vote drives, and many will do so through today.

In the Reynolds Club Monday, Timothy Banks, ORCSA’s associate director for facilities and events services, supervised as flat panel televisions and projection screens were set up throughout the building. The campus’s main viewing party will begin at 7 p.m. with news feeds set up in the C-Shop, Hutchinson Commons, Hallowed Grounds, and the South Lounge. Although the event is scheduled to end at midnight, the actual ending time might depend on whether students stay and whether the election has been called by that time, Banks said.

But election night plans vary widely among students and faculty.

Many will travel downtown to watch the returns in Grant Park, where the Obama campaign is staging its main election night event, and where Obama will either declare victory or concede defeat.

Cass Sunstein, former professor in the Law School who left the University last year for a position at Harvard and who has been mentioned as a possible Supreme Court nominee during an Obama administration, said in an e-mail that he would be attending the Grant Park event. He did not say whether he would be there as an invited guest or as a member of the general public.

Brent, who spoke Monday evening during a break from a University Theater rehearsal, said he and several other cast members planned to skip class today, move the rehearsal up, and then go to a friend’s apartment to watch the returns.

Gary Becker, professor in the economics department and at the GSB, teaches class Tuesday nights and said he expected “having trouble getting people to attend the seminar, I can tell you that, because it’s election night.”

Susan Gzesh, director of the human rights program, said she would be traveling to Gary, IN, where she will be a poll watcher for the Obama campaign and be on hand to file emergency court actions in the event of voting irregularities or the necessity to keep polls open because of long lines.

Economics professor Roger Myerson will also spend the day canvassing for Obama in Hammond, IN, and then return home to watch the returns with friends. Instead of attending the downtown rally, “we’ll be opening up some nice bottles of wine,” he said. “[The event] sounds like an exciting thing to do, and I’m sure the experience will be very memorable. I’ve had a lot of memorable experiences lately so I’ll let someone else have a chance staying up all night,” he said in reference to last year’s festivities in Stockholm where he was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.

Other professors detailed more low-key election night plans.

Dean of the College John Boyer said he would watch some of the returns while reading about the Hapsburg Empire in preparation for his Wednesday class. “As a student of the Hapsburg Empire, I’ve seen empires rise and fall. So I’ll be preparing for my seminar Wednesday,” he said.

Yoichiro Nambu, who last month was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics, said he would be taking his wife to a doctor’s appointment and was unsure whether he’d watch election night results, while law professor and former Obama colleague Dennis Hutchinson said he was “going to be home watching the returns on various channels, pretty boring.”

For professor Adam Green, who specializes in the history of black Chicago, his trip to the voting booth tomorrow will present a unique opportunity to honor the efforts of previous generations whose social and political struggles have culminated in Obama’s unlikely candidacy.

“If Senator Obama wins, it’s testament to an extraordinary campaign that he’s run [with] millions of volunteers,” he said. “But it stands on the shoulders of many, many people who have sacrificed their time at earlier times in the history of this country, and have at times sacrificed their lives.”

Green said he would follow the advice of a woman who rose to speak at an event he attended at the Carter G. Woodson Library a few weeks ago. In addressing the gathered crowd, the veteran South Side organizer spoke of the election as not only a momentous political occasion but also as a spiritual one, Green said.

The woman recommended that those in attendance take with them to the polls a memento of a departed relative who did not survive to enjoy the opportunity to vote in this election.

“On the recommendation of an older and wiser resident of the South Side, I’m going to bring a memento of my two grandmothers to the polls, and I want to be thinking of other people besides myself and of other people who are no longer here who would really cherish this moment,” Green said.

“Others who might also want to do that might make it a more memorable experience,” he said. “The election will be the culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of sacrifice and lot of hopes and dreams.”