Jitters All Around

War, economic meltdown, climate change, health care, all reported on a 24-hour news cycle. Anxiety has mounted for citizens like Washington's Rachel Ament, shown in her apartment.
War, economic meltdown, climate change, health care, all reported on a 24-hour news cycle. Anxiety has mounted for citizens like Washington's Rachel Ament, shown in her apartment. (By Ricky Carioti -- The Washington Post)
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By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 20, 2008

In the wee hours of the morning, she sits in a darkened room, watching a repeat of the political news she watched just hours before but listening this time for things unsaid, for any cues that would calm her down, make her a little less anxious about the presidential campaign.

She listens closely as journalists interview each other, then interview pundits who spin until she gets dizzy. The polls widen, but polls have been wrong before.

Before she flips out, she flips the channel.

Rachel Ament, 24, sinks into a velvet sofa at a Glover Park coffee shop, where she seeks like-minded company. It is no fun to swim alone in a pool of political anxiety.

"I was raised comfortable. Middle class. Now I'm a freelance writer without health insurance," says Ament, who is out of a job at the moment and operating on two hours of sleep. "I need health insurance." She thinks she has a better shot at affordable health insurance if Barack Obama wins. Her pale face shows lines of worry like a furled flag.

For the first time in her experience, she is nervous about the polls, the speeches, the debates. "I've never been so wrapped up in politics," she says. "I think this campaign has roused interest in the most apolitical people. . . . This may be the first election that will be extremely hard to get over" if her candidate doesn't win.

Brittany Tressler will have a hard time getting over it if he does.

Tressler, too, is 24, and she works for the Republican Party in Montgomery County, Pa. She can't understand why her friends and family aren't as scared of Obama's inexperience as she is or as impressed by John McCain's long service to his country, so this political season has been hard on her personal relationships. She avoids the subject altogether with her boyfriend's parents. "My mother is an Obama supporter," she says. "At first, I took it personally. I said, 'I work day in and day out for the Republican Party, and here you are supporting Obama!' "

She is experiencing the campaign "kind of like a tennis match: "McCain does something, then Obama does something. This is my first presidential election I've been involved in. It's nerve-racking."

As the fight descends into finality, people on both sides are wrestling with acute political anxiety, tied up in knots over the outcome of a contest that feels more intense, more personal than in previous years. Emotions are running even higher than they did during the dramatic court fight and recount that decided the 2000 election -- and not just because the country is about to have either its first African American president or its first female vice president.

Voters are worried about the economy. The war in Iraq. The resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan. A diminished view of the United States in the world. Climate change and shrinking ice caps. Loss of jobs. Banks going broke. The Dow dropping 778 points in a single day. These are issues they live with, feel in their gut.

Even the pros are scared. Is it any wonder that ordinary people are finding it hard to cope?


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