Obama's Volunteers Heed Call Into Issues Activism

Bookmark and Share
By:  Jeanette Der Bedrosian  
News21 UMD Staff
Posted: Aug. 6, 2009

Sergio Salmeron, founder of Metro DC for Change, asks President Obama a health care question. (Photo courtesy of Sergio Salmeron)

COLLEGE PARK, Md. – Sergio Salmeron, 26, started a grassroots group to lobby for health care reform this year after receiving an e-mail from Organizing for America, a group the Democratic Party launched in January to mobilize support for President Obama’s agenda.

The mass e-mail asked Salmeron, of Arlington, Va., to host a house party to talk about what issues matter most to people. The event he posted online drew so much response that he rented a room at George Mason University to accommodate everyone.

“Before I knew it, I had 50 people signed up, and I only had room in my living room for 20,” said Salmeron, who first decided to campaign for Obama after watching him on television in November 2007.

The nationwide effort by Democrats to convert Obama campaign workers into issues activists appears to resonate with many of the young volunteers who helped sweep him to victory last November.

Though some analysts question how many young people will stay involved, party activists said they already are seeing former Obama foot soldiers recommit, switching their focus to reform on hot-button issues like health care, affordable higher education and "don't ask, don't tell."

“They really aligned with his issues, which is why they’re staying involved,” said Hailey Snow, political and communications director for Young Democrats of America.

“They cared about health care, and so that’s why they’re staying active on his health care campaign.’’

Chrissy Faessen, spokeswoman for the youth mobilization group Rock the Vote, said she’s excited by how many election volunteers are returning to work on issue reform.

Despite the nonprofit’s small staff—it has only seven full-time employees—Rock the Vote has been able to maintain a broad reach thanks to interns and volunteer help, according to Faessen.“We see them now kind of coming back to us," she said.

 " ‘What can we do next?’ they keep asking."

Analysts are watching closely to see how the buzz Obama created among voters under 30 -- who voted 2 to 1 for him over Republican Sen. John McCain last fall -- will play out in the future. Since party affiliations formed early tend to persist for life, Democrats are eager to capitalize on Obama’s appeal to a rising generation of voters. And Republicans are just as eager to seize young voters before they solidify their allegiance to the Democratic party.

Millennials: Primed by Tweets and Texts

David Redlawsk, professor of political science and director of the Eagleton Center for Public Interest Polling at Rutgers University, sees the post-election outreach as something new, made possible in part by the You-Tube-Twitter-texting fuel that powered Obama's campaign.

“In general, people get very active in the run-up to the election, and then that activity dissipates because the national parties and the campaigns have let it dissipate in the past,” he said. “What does seem to be different is the intensity to which this is maintained, and it does seem to be among younger people, especially facilitated by the rise of the Internet and social  networking tools.”

Though the Republican Party also is using social networking tools like Twitter and Facebook to keep supporters engaged, many experts believe the GOP is playing technological catch-up to the Democrats -- and that its message isn’t progressive enough to win over the Millennial Generation, those born in the 1980s and 1990s.

“Millennials aren’t attracted to a political party because they know how to tweet. They’re attracted to a party with their same beliefs. And right now those beliefs [of Republicans] do not match up with [Millennials’] attitudes,” said Morley Winograd, co-author of “Millennial Makeover: MySpace, YouTube and the Future of American Politics.”

Winograd dubbed Millennials the “civic generation" because surveys have shown they are more civic-minded and group-oriented than most prior generations. In an interview, he said the success young people had with Obama’s campaign is becoming a driving force in keeping them engaged.

Redlawsk agreed that the Millennial generation is ready to take action. “You cannot mobilize people who aren’t interested,” he said. “So the fact to which younger people to a greater extent than ever before got involved, they’re kind of ripe for this. They’re looking for what’s next.”

Winograd contended that engagement at the level among young voters today hasn't occurred since Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt's presidency.

“It is unique to the Millennial Generation as compared to the other living generations,” he said. “It’s certainly a dramatic change from Gen Xers, who are alienated from society, uninterested in participating. It’s different from older Boomers who were active, but active in order to tear down institutions rather than build them up, and of course the Silent Generation—its name says how much they were interested in participating.”

 Peer-to-Peer Engagement

Salmeron, a self-proclaimed conservative who used to work for a Republican congressman, said he works three or four nights a week to support the president’s healthcare reform and has formed a group called Metro DC for Change. In July, he headed to the National Mall to help hand out 8,000 informational pamphlets explaining health care legislation proposals.

When interviewed, he was on his way out to a phone bank at the local branch of the Democratic National Committee to call other former Obama campaign volunteers.

“The DNC is realizing that they can continue to use the tools they used during the campaign, such as their online forum or making calls from home,” Salmeron said.

“Every group, including ours, is looking to Organizing for America to tell us what direction to take from now.”

Organizing for America developed out of the president's 2008 campaign machinery, inheriting the Obama for America Web site and its massive mailing list of supporters.

Managed by the Democratic Party, the Web site features a social networking tool where supporters can chat, donate and post local events relating to issue advocacy.

DNC spokesman Alec Gerlach described the goals in an e-mail. "This kind of grassroots campaign to promote the legislative priorities of a president beyond election day has never before been undertaken," he wrote. "Organizing for America's mission is to realize the promise that Americans voted for last November."

Some young people seem receptive. Katie Ford, a rising senior at Virginia Commonwealth University, pointed to the Obama campaign and Organizing for America as reasons for her involvement in politics.

Though she grew up in a liberal, politically-active family—“For Christmas, I got an ACLU membership,” she said—she never felt compelled to involve herself heavily incampaigns.

But when a family friend asked her to work for Obama’s communications team in Chicago last August, she said she felt compelled to join the cause. She worked on coordinating then-vice presidential nominee Joe Biden’s schedule and is proud to say she can point out her hat in the TIME magazine photo of Obama’s acceptance speech at Grant Park.

“I never really found my ‘in’ into activism until I was pulled on [the campaign],” she said. “The election was really a springboard for me to find my niche in politics and find my niche in local chapters and find the confidence to do what I want to do locally.”

Since then, she’s become active on health care policy and women’s issues. Ford lost her mother to breast cancer a few years ago, and believes she is carrying on her mother’s legacy and passion for Democratic politics.

As vice president of communications for the Virginia Young Democrats and a recent legislative fellow for the Virginia Young Democrats, Ford has lobbied for Planned Parenthood at the Virginia state capitol. Now, she’s looking into graduate school programs in health care policy—something she said is a direct result of her passion for Obama’s platform.

Jessica Pelliciotta, a 19-year-old rising junior at Penn State University, made a similar leap. She worked on Obama’s campaign in Pennsylvania and became active in several political organizations at school, and now works on youth employment issues for the Roosevelt Institution and 80 Million Strong for Young American Jobs.

“I’m definitely not an anomaly,” she said. “I think young people in general, we’re getting excited and realizing that we can enact change. And it’s not just one political figure that we’re voting for.”

Pelliciotta and others said that though Obama spurred their interest in politics, the movement has grown beyond a candidate. Support for Obama’s platform, more than the person or Democratic Party, appears a common theme among young policy volunteers.

But Will It Last?

Isaac Wood, spokesman for the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, agreed that new technologies have allowed campaigns to maintain contact with young voters like never before, but he said the likelihood of these young voters doing more than casting their ballots remains murky. 

“I think the message that’s being employed right now has a greater chance of success, but I’m not convinced that this has happened to the degree which some are claiming, " Wood said. "The truth is that many Obama voters basically feel like they've done their piece, and when they're asked to vote for his reelection, they'll be there. But in the meantime, I'm not sure they can be counted to tune in on these policy disputes."

Salmeron isn't worried about the outcome, despite his passion for grassroots democracy.

"I try to stay objective, and if tomorrow things fall apart, I'm not going to be too upset," he said. "I just know that these things happen. Who knows? Too many things could happen."


Comments that include potentially libelous statements or are personal attacks on others will be deleted from the site.