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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

My Election Day Experience by Sean B. Sullivan

Imagine being literally on the other side of the globe for the most engaging election in recent history. Wouldn't you be on pins and needles waiting to hear the results? That was the case for my nephew, Sean B. Sullivan, who relocated this summer to Tokyo, Japan, for work.

We keep up with him via Skype, email, and Facebook. He intended to start a blog to capture his "Lost in Translation" experiences [I can't imagine a place more likely to generate extreme situations of foreign-ness given Sean's near pro-basketball height...], but immersion and cultural survival have taken precedence.

From the other side of the globe, Sean wrote us about his Election Day Experience. I was so taken with it that I invited him to share it here.

I imagine that expatriates (expats) around the world have developed a renewed sense of patriotism similar to what I have experienced in only a short amount of time living away from home. Admittedly, the last two elections have been largely unemotional for me – given that I was just sixteen in 2000 and that 2004 was the first post-9/11 election where I was legally eligible to vote.

That being said, I feel compelled to divulge my first impressions of what the Obama presidency means (P.S.: the name "Obama" still comes up as a misspelled word according to my version of MS Word – I wonder how long it takes to fix that hiccup).

I have had several friends and colleagues ask me what kind of reaction the Japanese have had to Obama's successful candidacy, and while I want to immediately describe some sort of overindulgent exclamation of joy, I have to resort to, "Well, they're happy it's over." What a boring and anticlimactic response to one of our country's, if not the world's, seminal moments. Ultimately, the most important thing to the Japanese is whether or not the U.S. will continue to protect its borders like its own, and whether American consumers will buy Japanese goods [see Is Japan Immune to Obamamania by Ayako Doi - free reg.]. In order to accurately describe my sustained jubilation, let me describe my Election Day experience.

First of all, it's hard enough living a day ahead (or behind, depending on how you look at it) of all the world's news. I go to bed thinking that a 200 point Nikkei 225 swing will equate to a banner day on Wall Street, only to find out that Lehman Brothers has declared bankruptcy or the US government will now be using taxpayer money for a multi-billion dollar bailout of the troubled national investment banks. To call each morning a wake-up call is an understatement. But when I woke up on November 5, 2008 at 7 AM Tokyo time, not only had I been tossing and turning in my bed for two hours (my next door apartment neighbor likes to listen to an eclectic mix of Japanese Garbage music), but I was pumped full of adrenaline. I left my newly purchased MacBook a few feet away from my bedside in order to soak in the earliest state election results. But by 8 am no states were "officially called." Deciding that the first few states were ultimately inconsequential I darted out the door and briskly walked to the Azabu Juban station.

As close as I can time it, it takes me approximately 7.5 minutes to walk to the station and an additional 2-2.5 minutes to get the actual subway platform for the Oedo Line (it's one of the newest lines in Tokyo, and therefore buried deep below the street surface as to not disturb the existing above-ground infrastructure). I get on the train at roughly 8:45 AM (Tokyo trains are on the minute) and aim for getting one of the premier cars on the train – i.e., the one with the most AC. Upon boarding, I immediately poke away on my PDA for the NY Times homepage. I grossly under-appreciated the mobile web pages while in the States, but let me tell you, the ability to refresh an election board at every Tokyo subway station is truly a blessing – thank you NY Times editorial staff. By 9 am Tokyo time (7 pm on the East Coast) I knew that Vermont was Obama and Kentucky was McCain.

As we all know, it took a couple of hours for any of the traditionally blue or red states to turn their colors. But as the only Caucasian American in the office, I was glued to my computer screen. One would think that automatic updates every two minutes would be sufficient for following an election that had lasted almost 2 years, but that was not enough for me. Having sanctimoniously gotten used to immediate election coverage via CNN, I could not handle anything but live, instantaneous results. Luckily, MSNBC. com allowed streaming coverage for users outside of the U.S., and I was able to watch Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, and the other talking heads bicker for about two hours before anything meaningful happened. While verbose, long-winded, and self-righteous, it was very comforting to me to hear the familiar – a spirited, heated, political discussion. And despite the alleged certainty of an Obama victory, those first couple of hours were as tense and as gut-wrenching as a Final Four basketball game with 30 seconds to go. Going 3 months without live coverage of my favorite teams, that kind of excitement has been hard to come by, but for those 3-4 hours leading up to 11 PM EST, I may as well have been watching UVA or Duke battle for the NCAA title.

So as the election results slowly start to creep in from East to West, the tension built. I've got my desktop speakers up to a "unreasonable" volume for the office, but I could have cared less – "this is history" I kept telling myself. As to not miss a beat of the action, I brushed off a couple of invitations to go out for lunch and ran around the corner of the building for a bento box lunch (only 500 JPY, quite a deal), and return to my desk. The tension immediately subsided when Pennsylvania went Obama, a big hurdle, but when Ohio turned, I knew it was within his grasp. Then it became apparent that the all important, West Coast liberal states would declare the winner. When the clock struck 1 PM Tokyo time, the fireworks went off and MSNBC declared Obama the next President of the United States.

All I could do at this point was lean back in my chair, put my hands over my head and gasp. I searched for someone to share my excitement with; all I found was a huddle of Japanese women rehashing the various Halloween costumes they had adorned their cats with. As I tried to grasp the moment, I could only worry about a challenged, Supreme Court-decided election that would devastate the country. At that point Virginia had not been declared so I was hoping my absentee ballot would get counted correctly. Then, as it became readily apparent that Obama had indeed reached the magical 270 vote threshold, my apprehension turned to astonishment. I now waited for his speech.

Maybe I'm a sap, maybe it's the first time I'm experiencing a truly American moment outside of America, but at the conclusion of his speech I felt two things. 1) This guy will do everything he can to improve this country; there are no partisan, secret agendas. 2) I want to get involved (although I'm not sure when or how the will happen). In an effort to maintain some semblance of professionalism, I did not hoot 'n holler within the office, but I certainly wanted to. I can only hope that a majority of the electorate felt the same way, but judging from the smiles and tears generated from his victory, I think we're on the right track.

What Sean's Election Experience captures for me is how much this election differs from past ones - not just in the tools used [see Social Media, The Elections, What It Means For Marketing and Social Media & The Elections: What It Means for Marketing - Part II], but also in the connections forged with voters. When is the last time you remember an election eliciting such strong positive emotions? It's been a while, hasn't it?

These feelings will not only affect politics going forward, but also how we do business.

Thank you, Sean.

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