“I thought I’d come today to beat the rush tomorrow,” 24-year-old Britnee Luke, a Romney supporter from Columbus, Ohio, said in a line where she had stood for more than an hour Monday morning. “Oh, well.”
That line — more than 1,000 murmuring voters winding in a maze through a former department store on Columbus’ west side _ was just one of the many scenes where some of the 2012 presidential campaign’s final acts were playing out across the country.
For a race viewed as neck-and-neck nationally, that transition from a focus on early votes to the arduous final task of mobilizing millions for Election Day is meaningful. Although the campaigns have prepared for both phases of voting, Obama is viewed as having the early-vote edge overall while Romney’s team is confident it will receive more Election Day votes.
Ohio is a particularly pivotal state for both candidates. Virginia, Florida and Iowa are crucial, too, and volunteers scoured neighborhoods and looked for stragglers they might convert.
The lines in the former Kohl’s store moved at a healthy clip, although most voters who arrived by 9 a.m. EST didn’t walk out into the traffic-snarled parking lot for at least an hour. John Laudeman shuffled along, looking up at the ceiling in boredom: “I’m trying not to think about it.”
While it was all business in Columbus, in Cleveland the atmosphere was festive.
Music blared across the street from the county elections board office. Hot dog vendors, campaign button sellers, even the Rev. Jesse Jackson sought to woo the crowd. The line curled around the corner until the early voting deadline arrived at 2 p.m., when security turned away latecomers.
DeVonte Anthony, a student at Cuyahoga Community College and an Obama backer, fought the traffic and a snarled parking lot near the elections board to vote early with five family members. “We all came out today so we don’t have to wait in line tomorrow.”
More than 30 million people had already voted in 34 states and the District of Columbia, either by mail or in person.
Both candidates were staging last-minute events in Ohio, urging voters in person _ and in Obama’s case, with rocker Bruce Springsteen _ to vote.
Elsewhere Obama was working to turn out African-American voters with actor Samuel L. Jackson and comedian Chris Rock doing interviews on radio stations.
But much of the real work was being done elsewhere, and with far less fanfare.
Kim Williams and Kristi Layer were among about 30 volunteers at a Republican phone bank in north Columbus leaving messages on home voicemails to encourage people to vote Tuesday.
“This is the first election I’ve felt it’s so important for me to do something besides vote,” said Layer, a mother of two who owns a residential construction contracting company with her husband. “I’m panicked.”
A few miles away, Artie Rothenberg and Yonas Asfaw were heading out of the Obama campaign office on the edge of the Ohio State University campus, arms laden with information packets and leaflets designed to hang on doorknobs. Rothenberg, an OSU graduate student, voted last week and had the time to volunteer.
Asfaw, though, had driven eight hours from New York to volunteer in Ohio for Obama. “He needs my help more in Ohio than he does in New York,” he said.
More than 700 miles away, in Enfield, N.H., Obama volunteer Sarah Ayres nervously drove down a dirt road, unsure if she would find the house on her list.
“There were no people home,” she reported later. “But the goat was there. So I don’t know if I should count that.”
Scott Giesecke was in Romney’s Bedford, N.H., office by 9 a.m. for another shift of phone calls, as he’s done for months. By 10 a.m. the place was hopping with volunteers.
Giesecke said people have become numbed to the intrusion. “They’ve just been hammered,” the Manchester Republican said.
No one had slammed a door in his face during weeks of door-knocking. “You have the occasional hang-up with people who are frustrated ... but you can’t take it personally.”
While volunteers practiced patience and manners, frustration with the long, negative campaign bubbled near the surface in some voting lines.
“There’s been a level of intrusiveness in this election that is unprecedented, so I think we are all kind of dismayed about that and wanting that to be over,” said Barb Jones, voting early in Milwaukee.
Obama, Romney and allied groups have spent more than $1 billion on television advertising since June, primarily in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, North Carolina, Virginia and Wisconsin.
In St. Petersburg, Fla., Sheila Harris was eager to cast her ballot to finally end the campaign. “I’m sick of all the negative stuff,” she said. “I’m sick of the big, glossy fliers. And the phone calls - I’m sick of the phone calls.”
At that moment, a local candidate who was campaigning for last-minute votes nearby handed Harris one of his fliers.
But the last grueling days of the campaign were also stoking the emotions of its footsoldiers. Iowa Democratic Party Chairwoman Sue Dvorsky started weeping Monday as she entered the Iowa City home of Rod Sullivan, a longtime friend and Obama volunteer.
“This is more than an election for us,” Dvorsky said. “This is a very personal matter. We really have all been together in this.”