The presidential election is 10 months away, but for many hardcore Obama volunteers — like the dozen or so people who met here in a Greeley, Colo., garage on the Monday night before Thanksgiving — the campaign has never stopped.
Joe Perez, a retired city worker, is the owner of this gathering space, a clapboard nerve center of northern Colorado Obama politics tucked into a cul-de-sac between a maze of wooden fences. The interior is plastered with political signs in English and Spanish. One stretches across the entire back wall, announcing in big-brush block letters: “The road to the presidency goes through Greeley.” The volunteers point out the sign and laugh at its ironic grandiosity but they also semi-seriously embrace it.
They’ll tell you that Colorado is a pivotal swing state and that it reflects key demographic and economic changes taking place throughout the American west. Although the Northern Colorado Tea Party, for example, is one of the largest Tea Party groups in the country and held repeat candidate forums in the Greeley area during the 2010 election season, its familiar rallying cries – like “We want our country back” – either fail to resonate with or offend the kind of people who are destined to eventually dominate the region. Over the last decades, large numbers of coastal and university-town Americans have come here to work in expanding tech and research industries and, together with the growing mostly still working-class Latino population, are tipping the state’s formerly red-libertarian political profile to a shade of purple that places public good at least on something like par with individual liberty as a top government priority.
In fact, at a glance, the volunteers in Perez’s garage could be northern Colorado Tea Partiers. These aren’t stereotypical fresh-faced Obamatron hipsters; these are politicized older people. Outwardly, the two most glaring differences between these volunteers and local Tea Partiers are that they are an ethnically mixed bunch and that they are intensely organized on election campaign work. They are not discussing the news or politics or the failings of the media– or anything else. They’re on task. It’s nearly a year from Election Day and a holiday week and yet there’s almost no time being wasted in this garage.
Material from the national organization, Obama for America (OFA), spreads out on long foldout tables covered with red-checkered tablecloths. Laptops are open with browsers showing the My Barack Obama or My-BO and Democratic Party VoteBuilder databases. People are typing from the beginning to the end of the meeting. Everyone knows what they’re here to do.
As the meeting progresses, Perez fills out a big white-board calendar set in front of the car door.
A woman named Trish updates a list of thousands of Weld County residents’ names with answers to a host of ground-game questions: Who seemed receptive to the message? Who wants to volunteer? Who changed a phone number? Who needs to register to vote?
Pat Bruner, the meeting facilitator, works off an agenda cheat-sheet provided by the national campaign, ticking off items and adding notes for next week.
Dates are being set for face-to-face coffees with potential volunteers. Follow-up pre-printed OFA postcards are being addressed to be mailed out the week after Thanksgiving. Phone banking time is scheduled to talk to the voters receiving the postcards. There is a Review and Preview meeting set for the middle of December, where the group will look back on progress made and ahead to goals that must be achieved in the first weeks of the new year.
Ten minutes after the meeting starts, the volunteers are all on their phones, looking mainly at this stage to line up more organizers and swell the ranks of the northern Colorado advance teams. Those not typing notes are scribbling away with OFA pens.
The Greeley team has been meeting here to work exclusively on the campaign since August. Nearly all of them worked to elect Obama in 2008 and most have been working to gain public support for Obama’s policy agenda since he was inaugurated. To do that, they have essentially been using the same organizing techniques and as a bonus keeping the campaign’s network of contacts fresh.
Perez’s story of how he recently became involved in Democratic politics is typical of the genre. He moved to Greeley from Denver 30 years ago looking for a smaller, agricultural, more culturally conservative community, something more like western Nebraska where he grew up. Greeley suits him but there were drawbacks.
“It’s so [politically] conservative up here, I felt I couldn’t really speak my convictions,” he said. “I was never political. After Vietnam, I put a McGovern sticker on my car. That was my first political action outside the voting booth. Then I saw Obama’s speech at the 2004 Democratic convention. He told his story. He said ‘We’re not African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans. We’re all just Americans.’
“Well, I’ve been called a wetback, a beaner, a spic,” Perez said, counting off the names on his fingers. “I’ve been called everything, but never an American. That’s all I ever wanted to be, an American. Obama electrified me about the inclusiveness of the American people.”
That variety of Obama electricity has diminished now that he is also familiar to Americans as the captain of a dysfunctional Washington at a time of crisis. For the 99 percent, the national economy three years after Obama took office is still limping along, throwing up the kind of high unemployment figures it’s easy to imagine would dance like hooded reapers through the dreams of any sitting president. In response, the campaign is looking in part to provide context for voters through messaging that focuses on the alternative realities any of the likely Republican candidates would have brought about.
Perez says one of the main hurdles he’s coming up against in talking to voters is disillusionment, where citizens who cast their first-ever ballot did so for Obama last election and have come to believe it didn’t make any difference. Washington is still Washington: the games go on as usual there while the vast majority of Americans continue to suffer coast to coast.
For these dispirited voters, Perez delivers a list of examples of Republican actions taken over the past three years that he believes demonstrates a cynical obstructionist approach to government. He leads with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s statement from January 2009 in which he held that the “single most important thing [Republicans] want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” Perez mentions the debt and budget standoffs this year that saw Republicans bringing the nation to the “brink of disaster” by refusing to consider raising taxes even on millionaires when debt default loomed and Standard and Poor’s delivered an historic downgrading of the nation’s credit rating. Same thing, says Perez, when you look at what just happened with the congressional super committee, which was formed out of desperation to negotiate a compromise budget but failed to do so.
“There’s a vision of an America that guards the living wage, the opportunity of education, that looks after the well-being of its citizens,” Perez said. “That’s Obama’s vision. I share that vision and I think most Americans share that vision, but there’s just a lack of cooperation to get things done.
“The other side doesn’t seem to care about what they call the ‘bottom feeders,’ [people] who should all just take a shower and get a job. The American people want to work, they want to keep their homes. Unemployment benefits put food on the table but they don’t pay rent. People want jobs. These are our family members and friends. They’re Americans.”
As Jim Rutenberg, writing on the campaign message for the New York Times last weekend, put it: “If 2008 was about ‘Yes We Can’ and limitless possibility, 2012 will be to some degree about why we couldn’t (‘Republican intransigence’), and why we shouldn’t, at least when it comes to anything the Republican nominee proposes (‘His party got us here in the first place’).”
Message and mechanics
For now, however, the message seems less important than the mechanics, and on that score the campaign is notching major successes.
By mid-October, the donor-ticker at the Obama for America website rolled past seven digits. More than a million people have given to the campaign, a rate of giving that outpaces the record set by the first Obama presidential campaign. In the third quarter, the re-election effort raked in $42 million and received 257,000 first-time donations. The average amount donated was $55.
By mid-November, the campaign celebrated its millionth one-on-one conversation with voters, a mark of the old-school approach to election politics taken by the Obama team that prioritizes the ground game and an achievement that buoys campaign staffers despite the lousy economy and shifting poll numbers.
“Our opponents… simply lack the broad base of grassroots support that we have,” campaign manager Jim Messina said at the time. “They don’t believe in it. They don’t have any interest in the kind of politics that bring everyday people together to make real change in this country.”
According to a November campaign memo, the national team also confirmed it had signed on its thousandth volunteer neighborhood team leader. The author of the memo announced successes around the country that included a “day of action” in Colorado that drew 537 volunteers who worked from 58 “staging locations” to arrange more than 100 one-on-one meetings with Obama supporters and independent voters.
Obama for America presently has two offices open in Colorado, one in Denver and one in Fort Collins, and is hiring staff to cover the entire state. Two priorities that have taken shape in the state, according to the Greeley volunteers and campaign officials, is to protect voting rights and to reach out to women. Neither priority comes as a surprise.
Republican Secretary of State Scott Gessler has made national news for seeking the authority to purge the state’s election rolls of voters he believes may be illegally registered non-citizens or illegal immigrants and for acting to prevent county clerks from mailing ballots to “inactive voters” or legally registered voters who failed to vote in the 2010 election. He has met stiff resistance in these efforts but Democratic sources routinely refer to him as the state’s Katherine Harris, the controversial Republican Florida secretary of state in 2000 who declared that George Bush had defeated Al Gore and who halted recount efforts despite the fact that a margin of only roughly 500 votes separated the candidates and that widespread allegations of irregularities plagued the ballot casting and counting processes.
In 2010, by almost all accounts, women decided the Colorado U.S. Senate race that pitted Democrat Michael Bennet against Republican Ken Buck. Perez said the Greeley Obama volunteers worked on that race intensely, a race Buck seemed poised to run away with. In the end, however, he turned off women in droves with his strong stand against abortion and his mishandling as Weld County District Attorney of a rape case in which he appeared to blame the victim, arguing that the assault charges weren’t worth pursuing and doing so in crude language that betrayed a retrograde view of sex crimes and gender relations in general.
The Greeley volunteer meeting facilitator on Monday, Pat Bruner, a multi-ethnic mainly German-Japanese mom– “a typical Heinz 57 American,” as she puts it– grew up in Fort Collins and worked for the Obama campaign in 2008. She said she has a big family and feels the need to work to put in place a government that embraces the future, that isn’t mired in the battles of the past. She said many of the voters she is meeting with share similar concerns.
“We spend a lot of time just sitting down with people, talking. They’re worried but they’re also very open and positive about the message. We [volunteers] just keep our eye down the road. We know what part we play in the bigger picture. It’s person to person, phone call after phone call. It’s not glamorous. It’s hard work.”