At An Obama Rally In Austin, What I Found When I Got OffTheBus

The following piece was produced by HuffPost's OffTheBus.

The first time I was asked to leave an area forbidden to press during a recent Obama rally
in Austin, Texas, I felt kinda proud, like this was exactly what I was supposed to be doing. The second time I got roped, dragged off, and corralled with the press in a little set-aside area, I understood in the clearest sense what sets OffTheBus apart from standard presidential campaign press coverage, and why this exciting new grassroots means of bringing political campaigns--warts and all--to the voters is not only cutting-edge, but necessary to present unvarnished information that has not been manipulated for their consumption that they can then use to make informed decisions.

Understand that I'm not knocking the Obama people--I had a ball at the rally and found the speech to be inspiring and the volunteers incredibly motivated. I completely understand the desire of a top-tier presidential campaign to attempt to control message to some extent. It's entirely believable that some members of the fourth estate might attempt to take a careless remark by an innocent, inexperienced volunteer, twist it around, and turn it into a major news-breaking headline quote by "a source close to the campaign who is not authorized to speak."

They had no way of knowing that I was not asking volunteers for the candidate's policy analysis--I was asking questions like, What brought you here? What is it about Obama's message that appealed to you, personally? Do you think that Democrats are, generally speaking, too angry after roughly fourteen years of conservative Republican rule, to respond to Obama's message of unity? Do you see a trend toward the purpling of Texas? And if Obama should not get the nomination, who would be your second choice?

Had the campaign organizers realized what I was up to, they might have been more willing to see such quotes in print as the one by a young Hispanic man working as a volunteer in the campaign merchandise tent, Rod Espinosa, who said about Obama, "It's easy to spot the hero in movies, but we have a hard time spotting the real thing in real life."

Or the African-American volunteer, Jacqueline Hill, who said that she'd been so inspired by Obama's speech at the Democratic convention in 2004--"I was watching alone but cheering aloud"--that she watched it repeatedly over the following months, "when things got bad," and said she'd never given so much time, energy, and money to any candidate in her life. When I asked her friend and fellow volunteer, Dee Robertson, who she would vote for if Obama did not win the nomination, she claimed that she would write his name on the ballot.

There's a certain cool in being part of the press corps at such an event. You get preferential treatment--we were allowed to bring in bags and water bottles that, for security reasons, regular attendees couldn't. This was an outdoor concert venue where the attendees stood for hours in the rain, but we had chairs and a table. Our press credential badges enabled us to cross ropes--but at the same time, in the hours preceding the senator's arrival, we were expected to stay in the press area and not speak to the volunteers. Some of the reporters were only too happy to do so, lounging in their chairs and clacking away at their laptops from a safe distance. And as the senator worked the rope line, the press corps was led up to the stage in groups of five to take photographs.

But I didn't see how anybody could get a true feel for the pulse of the crowd without being part of it, so I left my seat two hours before the senator arrived, snagged a place by the rope line, and talked to the people around me about why they were there. In that place, I could hear the shouts and comments from the crowd as he spoke, catch the rhythm of the cheers, notice that nobody seemed to mind the rain, and when he started down the rope line to shake hands, I could feel first-hand the crush of the crowd as it pressed forward for a touch of him.

This is why OffTheBus exists, because this is the story--the good, bad, and ugly of a presidential campaign. We get off the press bus; we blend with the crowd; we go places the press can't; we talk to the people; we feel the hopes of the volunteers and the energy and heartbeat of the crowd.

And then, we bring it all to you.