Beneath The Blue Wave

A Photographic Essay

Last year I spent four months working on the congressional campaign of Tom Malinowski in New Jersey. Tom would become one of forty Democrats to knock incumbent Republicans from office, helping win back control of the House in what has been rightly termed a ‘blue wave’. As the campaign photographer I was privy to many of the key moments along the road to his election. This photographic essay documents the arduous path to an American election win from the perspective of a curious Irish outsider.

Tom Malinowski had been Assistant Secretary of State to John Kerry during the Obama administration, and had served on the National Security Council under President Clinton. He was a diplomat and a foreign affairs specialist with no political ambitions until Trump’s shock election in 2016. Many Obama alumni would take this leap, with Tom running in his home congressional district in New Jersey. This district was one of the wealthiest in the nation with many of its denizens commuting into Wall St and elsewhere in Manhattan. It is very white, and decidedly upper-middle class. The seat had been held by Republicans for nearly forty years, the pallid Leonard Lance being the current incumbent of a decade. Tom would be his first proper challenger in that time.

The staff on a competitive congressional campaign is pretty small, with about twenty full timers. Young and idealistic, you live in each other’s pockets for months, putting in 100 hour weeks with no prospect of a day off — nor desiring one. (I miss these amazing people every day!) There are 435 congressmen and -women in the House, with each representing about 700,000 voters. That’s a lot of doors to knock and phones to dial. The Field Team’s job was to recruit and manage volunteers to make these calls and knock those doors. We had thousands of volunteers by the end. There was also a Finance Team who raised the money, a Comms Team who put the message out, and finally a couple of senior political strategists who decided what that was message was (and every other major decision). On a well run campaign the candidate is not the boss, he/she is the product being sold.

A candidate really has only two duties: meet voters & raise money. A challenger may have zero name recognition so has to get out there, shaking hands and making speeches. We attended every fête, festival and fair in our district. Anywhere people gathered Tom would show up and press his case for their votes. Starting out there were, naturally, some tough crowds like the one above at a Moose Lodge (a kind of working man’s club). But Tom is a workhorse and we hit up hundreds of events like this over the summer and early autumn. Slowly but surely people came to know and recognise him. The raising of money was the other key element in this as campaign donations largely get spent on advertising. Tom’s face became unavoidable across NJ’s 7th district whether it be on TV, Facebook or at local events.

The morning commute offered the chance to talk to potential voters while they were idle and waiting for a train. We were up at 5am and on a train platform by 6am a couple mornings each week. These early morning photos were some of the most popular on Facebook and Instagram. People love knowing their candidate is up before the crack of dawn, working hard for those votes. If you are donating or volunteering for the campaign you want to be sure that Tom is giving his all too.

The pre-dawn and pre-coffee commute seems an unlikely time and place for detailed policy conversations but transport is a major issue to many in New Jersey. Trains and bridges have been poorly funded for years meaning that the service was slow and unreliable. Furthermore, Trump had just blocked funding for an additional tunnel under the Hudson river to Manhattan. It seems he was punishing both NJ and NY for having voted for Hillary. So Tom heard out their gripes and was grilled each morning about what he would do to fix the trains and get the tunnel built. As it happens, he has just landed a seat on the Transportation Committee in Congress.

As the weeks went by it was apparent that the TV and Facebook ads were working — more and more people recognised him or said they’d seen him on the television. You could tell how important this election was to people as they’d often miss their train while discussing healthcare or taxes on the platform. As we got into October we also heard many saying they had voted for him already as NJ allowed early voting and postal votes. Democratic controlled states like NJ actually try to make voting easier…

One of the most fun aspects of campaigning is attending all the village fairs and street festivals, of which there are many in NJ. We got to meet thousands and thousands of people at these events, sampling the local delicacies, and perusing the myriad stalls. For a photographer there are rich pickings with all the colour and activity on display.

This snazzily dressed kid was the star of the show at a farming festival we attended. Tom played the long game and would ask kids what year he could have their vote…

Pressing flesh and cooing at babies are political cliches, but petting every dog you meet is up there too. Possibly the best part of the job. We encountered this beauty called Aurora in High Bridge.

With his background as a diplomat Tom was in his element at the various ethnic and religious events we attended. I think the happiest I’ve ever seen him was at this Hindu festival learning the Dandiya sticks dance! It was pretty incredible walking into a high school gym in dreary suburban New Jersey and seeing this explosion of colour and motion.

At this Chinese-American group’s picnic we met these lovely high school kids. They were quoting back lines from Leonard Lance’s attack ads to him saying ‘Hey, you are that guy with the “dangerous policies” from YouTube!’. So many kids and teenagers saw these ads they were quoting them to us everywhere we went.

The art of the selfie must be quickly mastered out on the campaign trail.

Women were at the heart of the Democrats’ huge success in the 2018 midterms. White college-educated women in particular led the backlash against Trump. They were repulsed by his actions, words, behaviour, policies, everything about him. This was clearly evident on our campaign from the outset. I would not hesitate to say they were the difference between winning and losing. These women were the ones making the calls, knocking on the doors, organising events and donating the money. They were the ones who showed up and voted en masse. The shock of 2016 turned to rage in 2018 which built a wave of political energy across the nation.

Women were also supercharged after the Brett Kavanaugh hearings. Events like this which lie far beyond the control of a campaign often have tremendous impact. The weekend after the hearings in late September saw huge numbers of volunteers show up to our canvassing launches. We had to do this launch in the carpark rather than the office just to accommodate all the people. The Republicans likewise were boosted by the Kavanaugh situation and overall it contributed to a record midterm turnout of 50.3%. This was close to Presidential election levels.

Endorsements are very important in congressional races. They glean lots of publicity, help raise valuable donations, and make for big splash events like this one. Senator Cory Booker is super popular in New Jersey so his endorsement was especially valuable. He came out to a rally in a high school gym and had the place absolutely rocking. I was taking photos down in what felt like a mosh pit. Booker has genuine star power and charisma so it’s easy to see why he has jumped into the 2020 nomination race. Tom’s elderly mother spoke before both of them and actually stole the show that day.

The atmosphere during the Cory Booker event was electric. It brought out the biggest crowd of the campaign thus far. From that day on you could really feel the momentum gathering, and that progress was being made after all the hard work. Big crowds like this became common during the run in.

Former Secretary of State John Kerry was Tom’s old boss in the Obama administration. Kerry is a smart and serious guy, and always has interesting things to say on world affairs. This event was a more cerebral affair compared to the raucous atmosphere of the earlier Cory Booker gig. Tom got to show he could mix it with policy heavyweights like Kerry. A good politician has to have different gears, and be comfortable switching between them.

NJ’s Governor Phil Murphy made regular appearances for us on the campaign trail too. Big Phil is as Irish-American as they come and greeted me as ‘my fellow Irishman’. He was a charming mixture of gangling hyperactivity and dad jokes. I love this photo which captures how he cracked up the crowds. A little levity goes a long way in the depressing Trump era.

A campaign like this needs to raise $5m+ just to be in the running. The vast majority of those funds are spent on advertising. Most Democratic campaigns still spend the majority on TV over digital in a 70/30 split. TV ads are expensive but effective, and the television’s older viewers are still much more likely to vote than the younger generations on digital media. Another form of advertising is the yard signs which proliferate around election time. People go absolutely nuts over them and we regularly felt their wrath when our offices ran out of them. The campaign did not buy any billboards but one generous lady bought this one for us so we made an occasion of its launch.

These 13 year old twins were inspired by the Parkland school kids to get involved in the campaign. Gun violence and active shooter drills are the wallpaper to the lives of many American teenagers. The twins came in each week to make calls to voters imploring them to vote Democratic and help address the epidemic of school shootings. These kids were naturals on the phone and must have spoken to hundreds of voters over the campaign. It is another sign that Republicans will totally miss out on the upcoming Gen Z.

Shannon and Jessica were the other legendary set of twins on the campaign. They ran the phone-banking at our office a couple nights a week and then knocked on doors all weekend. They did this for months on end alongside their actual jobs, yet were always fonts of good humour and kindness. The political culture and volunteerism in the US was impressive. Irish or British elections are thankfully short and sweet so don’t require the same time or money. The sheer amount of time that individuals were willing to give up to such causes here was eye opening. Every winning candidate was reliant on hundreds of good citizens like Shannon and Jessica.

Viewing parties were held for the handful of televised debates that took place between Tom and Leonard Lance. In national or state level races televised debates are a big deal and can sometimes be decisive. For congressional races which are essentially local elections they are much less so. They aired on tiny local channels that few had access to, at weird times of the day, and sometimes not even live. This debate was not aired live so Tom was able to attend the viewing party himself and provide a running commentary — pretty meta!

During the final weeks we would do five or six stops per day like this around New Jersey. We staffers would hear the stump speech a million times and I could probably do a good rendition still today. The Q&A at the end was always the most engaging part. The issues that cropped up time and again were healthcare, transport and taxes. These are the practical problems from people’s lives as opposed to the culture war stories or minor scandals which the media and Trump tend to focus on. Our campaign messaging stuck to addressing these issues rather than wading into Trumpian territory.

Two weeks before election day a major undertaking is ‘Packetland’. One office is turned into a workshop where about 5000 manila envelopes are filled with literature, maps, pencils, and lists of houses. These are the ‘packets’ that volunteers will use to knock on every door in the district three times (or thereabouts) in the final days before the election. Packetland is a major operation and requires military-style planning to be done right. By the end you are dreaming of manila envelopes and suffering from an infinite number of paper cuts.

Packetland is preparation for the key moment for every campaign — GOTV, or Get Out The Vote. Everything builds to the five days before election day when all our field operations culminate in thousands of volunteers knocking on doors. Multiple staging locations launch volunteers throughout the day. They show up, get trained, receive a packet, and then hit those doors. Tom would do the rounds of the various locations, giving a pep talk to lucky volunteers before they headed out. Hopefully by this time voters are aware of Tom Malinowski and it is a matter of insuring they actually get out and vote. This is especially important for Democrats as they are notoriously unreliable voters. ‘Republicans vote’ was a motivating mantra for us.

Some of the crowds showing up for GOTV were enormous. This house had over 1000 volunteers arrive on a single day, shutting down the block, and resulting in the police being called. With New York just 30 minutes away and most of its seats in the bag for Democrats already, thousands of New Yorkers skipped brunch and took trips out to districts like ours each weekend. This political tourism built volunteer armies across the tri-state area.

In the final days of the campaign there was almost a giddy atmosphere. A candidate’s work is largely done by then. As one of our bosses said ‘Tom, you are largely useless to us now!’ The onus falls to staff and volunteers to get out the vote. Tom definitely had more fun in those final days than us: here he is swinging (left, of course).

The night before the election we finished up another hectic day of events with a bonfire. We would be up at 4am to put literature in doors and yard signs outside voting locations. The big day had arrived.

Election day in the US has no moratorium so TV ads still run and candidates still campaign on the day itself. We hit the train stations one last time at 6am. Much was riding on the outcome of this election. It was seen as a referendum on Trump, a chance to push back on his definition of America. The look on this lady’s face as she talked with Tom was striking. He just had to win.

This is probably my favourite photo from the campaign. On the morning of the campaign we were on the platform greeting people when it was announced that the train was cancelled and the replacement train would arrive on the opposite platform. That left Tom alone on this platform with hundreds of commuters opposite him, a captive audience . Some shouted across ‘I voted for you this morning’ or ‘Fix the damn trains!’ or ‘Good luck’. I jumped up to snap this when he crossed his fingers to them.

We then went off to Tom’s hometown polling station, trailed by local media. With that done we hit the road for the hotel where we would all gather for the results to come in. Most staff spent the day knocking on doors, driving volunteers about, or canvassing outside polling stations. Polls closed at 8pm so if we showed up at the party before 8:30pm we would be shot for dereliction of duty.

The latest polls had put Tom slightly ahead or even with Leonard Lance. We had no idea how the election night would turn out. There were a lot of worried faces and much Twitter hearsay flying about. Booze and cigarettes helped. Around 11pm staff were quietly told to gather by the stage as something was being announced. We (and by ‘we’ I mean me) were emotional wrecks, exhausted from lack of sleep and wracked nerves. But Tom had just received the concession call from Lance. This moment here was just glorious. So much winning. Pure elation and relief. Team Malinowski deserved it.

The congressman elect had us all up on stage with him as he made his acceptance speech. It was a lovely gesture. About 30 of us squeezed onto this tiny stage behind the podium with a sea of cameras clicking and flashing. I could see dozens of faces from the events I had photographed all in the one place for the first time, all screaming with delight. These highs come along rarely. I can see why people get hooked on politics, there is little else like it. It felt like Ireland winning the World Cup with an injury time Richard Dunne header, basically. It also comes to a short, sharp stop. Your campaign family is broken up overnight, unemployment beckons. The next major endorphin hit doesn’t come along until 2020. Win or lose, there is always the next election for reward and redemption. Sign me up…

Two months after the election madness you get to see the fruits of your labour. Tom Malinowski was sworn into Congress in Washington D.C. on January 3rd, 2019. Mission accomplished!