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Outside the Convention Hall, Meeting Politics Geeks and True Believers

The crowds at conventions build in two directions… early to late in the day, and early to late in the week. This makes the early hours of opening day a time you can pass by a delegation and talk to members, stroll the concourses and get a drink, even contemplate walking outside the security perimeter if need be, without fear that you’ll be unable to shoehorn your way back into the building. Each day as the later evening hours arrive, delegations file in from meetings with elected officials, strategy sessions, or the more non-political delights of concerts, cocktail parties, and swell meals laid on by any number of public and private interests that might be willing to cater in regional specialties.

By the time the marquee speakers stroll in from the wings and head to the mike, the corridors on the floor have jammed with delegates. The stairways up from the floor level are crammed with people having conversations, taking photographs, posing for photographs, and there are a thousand people who have to wait mid-climb to get on their way. The lines for the men’s and ladies’ rooms have begun to lengthen, and the concourses become a slow-motion scrum. Remember who we’re talking about here: elected officials, party activists, and politics geeks, three groups of people who will immediately stop mid-stroll and crane their necks for a sighting of Dennis Kucinich, Wolf Blitzer, or Eva Longoria. It makes walking an odd kind of trial, you see a little daylight open in front of you when suddenly… traffic comes to a standstill when the former governor of New Mexico passes by, headed in the other direction. We’re all salmon; we’re just trying to propel ourselves up different rivers. I know the politics geeks well, maybe because I am an honorary member of their tribe. They don’t just crane their necks for people who might be “big names” in the wider culture, but for C-SPAN hosts, political columnists, pollsters, and a guy from public television who, you know, it’ll only take a second, might have a minute for a picture or a story pitch.

What makes it fun? Those same people. The people ready to stop for a moment to describe the district they canvass, or represent in a state house, in loving and thorough detail. The people whose names you’ll never know, whose faces will never be on a campaign button or bumper sticker who make the whole clanking, careening, machinery of politics go in the far-flung places they live. In the past few days, I met and interviewed the youngest and oldest delegates to the Democratic National Convention, an 18-year-old from West Virginia, and a 97-year-old from Mississippi. A municipal worker from North Carolina, a state rep from Colorado, a political activist from Nevada.

Elzena Johnson is old enough to remember the poll tax. So serious was her father about voting that her family, being so broke from time to time, sometimes had to sell household items or farm animals to raise a few dollars to pay it. You may hear pollsters talk about the troubles President Obama has with elderly white voters in the south. Johnson, who will turn 98 before Election Day and still plans to work as a poll watcher, is rock solid for President Obama.

Hannah McCarley is entering her senior year in a West Virginia high school, and has inherited a strong interest in politics from her parents. She ran for a delegate’s spot at her county’s Democratic convention, and to her surprise, was elected. Just one more thing: She had to be an eligible voter by nominating time, and turned 18 Monday. Hannah says the Iraq war crowded out many other issues in the last presidential campaign. This time, she says, a greater focus on the economy and health care should work in the president’s favor.

Hanging around with true believers is enlivening because it is a solvent that rinses away the crust of cynicism that comes naturally to a reporter. At both parties’ conventions, the true believers are still wound up, engaged, ready for battle, while many of their own friends, neighbors, and families are either too busy or too tired to care just as hard.

I think it might be exhausting to be around them all the time, but a political convention is just long enough to remind you that they’re there. The privilege of a press pass means never having to wait outside a metal barrier to catch a glimpse of a well-known political personality, or shout a quick question to get them to engage. I am glad, and glad to be reminded, that so many people still care about this stuff. I am glad, and glad to be reminded, of the joy rank-and-file citizens take in political verbal jousts just on the other side of the barriers, handing out hand-made leaflets, shouting slogans, selling buttons. I am glad, and glad to be reminded, of the serious care regular people so often take in answering a question from a reporter, while their better-known representatives might simply trot out a long DNA-style strand of cliches.

So, is it fun? Yes, it is. Still.

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