From the people, for the people
On Sept. 6, local mom Amie Nelson held a bake sale at Freedom Park in Edwards. This wasn’t any old fundraiser; it was meant for those “Hungry for Change,” a theme that both Democrats and Republicans have been hammering home this election season. But Nelson took it upon herself and 20 other families in the community to bake for hours, along with their kids, to raise funds for the Obama campaign.
“I was amazed at how well it went,” Nelson said. “So many people just came out of the woodwork with cookies and baked goods saying, ‘Here’s how I want to help.’ I think people really wanted to be a part of something.”
On that fall Saturday, Nelson and her volunteers raised $1,600, which was used to help pay the expenses of local campaign field offices to keep them open.
Co-chair of the Eagle County Democrats, Carole Onderdonk, said she is thrilled with grassroots efforts such as these.
“People with that kind of initiative are the backbone of the Democratic Party,” she said. “We love groups like them, and are happy they are putting on this event.”
The term “grassroots” is often used in campaigns as a catchphrase, a way to show that candidates are connecting to their constituency. But the 2008 election has taken “on-the-ground” support to a whole new level for both parties.
“Just yesterday I put in overhead lights for the (campaign) signs, and someone just lent us his pickup to move some chairs for us for a rally,” said Randy Milhoan, chair of the Eagle County Republicans.
“Anyone that’s an affiliated voter that gets out and helps in any way … that’s what ‘grassroots’ means. And this year, we’ve had big success getting signs up in yards and getting volunteers. We could always have more, but it’s been great thus far.”
Grassroots politicking isn’t new, but this year Colorado is a battleground state, with Obama and McCain still neck-and-neck less than a month from Election Day. That, plus the nationwide fervor over the presidential race, is prompting more and more “everyday people” to get involved.
“People are getting involved in critical numbers, and we’re very lucky to have an unprecedented grassroots energy here,” said Matt Chandler of the Obama state office. “Talking to people one-on-one is the best way to get people involved. If you talk to one person about, say, the economy and how it affects them, they tell someone who tells someone who tells someone.”
The Obama campaign is seeing unprecedented local involvement, with a record 34 regional offices operating in Colorado. While previous campaigns have stuck to traditionally Democratic areas, this year’s strategy is different: Campaign everywhere, in every corner of the state.
Chandler calls it the “50-state strategy,” a plan of attack that is intended to trickle down to the grassroots level.
“We’re out talking to voters every day about issues that matter to them,” Chandler said. “We’re making sure people are registered to vote, and it’s just been about everyone making sure they are getting their voices heard.”
While grassroots involvement has traditionally been a Democratic angle, the Republicans in this election have seen a significant increase in bottom-up campaigning.
“I think that there’s probably equal emphasis this year,” Milhoan said of the grassroots movement in Colorado. “Democrats have always had other affiliated organizations, while Republicans don’t have many. Sometimes we have a tougher time finding volunteers because we have businesses and jobs.”
Randy Hildreth, communications director at the Colorado state GOP, said getting volunteers is one of the Republican Party’s strengths. He said volunteers played a large role in 2004 election returns and that this year’s grassroots effort is pivotal.
“Colorado is a critical battleground state this election,” Hildreth said. “Both campaigns are aggressively targeting Colorado voters. There are a lot of boots on the ground, so to speak.”
Hildreth said the addition of Sarah Palin as the vice presidential nominee has encouraged more people than usual to call up the GOP office and volunteer their time.
“It’s not only a historic moment for the GOP to have such a strong woman as VP ” it’s also that people really connect with her, see her as someone like themselves,” Hildreth said. “They like how she worked her way to the top, and people are really enthusiastic about her.”
Milhoan said that Republican volunteers range from retired people to business owners and high school students. But the strongest support comes from veterans of the military who support John McCain. In particular, he praised Tom Kirk, a Vail resident, former POW and delegate to the Republican National Convention this year.
“We need to be speaking to groups all the time, and when Tom goes out, he’s made himself personally available to speak about McCain’s character,” Milhoan said. “He’s been tremendous.”
Amie Nelson said more than ever, people want to get involved because there is finally a candidate speaking to the issues that people have been thinking about for years.
“People are finally feeling like this campaign is about real people,” Nelson said. “And that [Obama] is listening to the needs of the everyday man, woman and child.”
A significant part of the Obama campaign’s strategy is to mobilize college campuses and create awareness among young voters, Chandler said.
“There are thousands of people very excited about Obama and his stance about bringing change to this country, and our organization speaks for itself,” Chandler said.
A lot of young people are voting for the first time and see issues they face themselves, like health care and college financial aid. In today’s precarious economy, these issues are real enough to push young people to get involved on both sides.
“The last several elections have been so tight, and everyone expects the same thing again. We’ve got a lot of young people coming in, far more than I can remember,” Milhoan said. “It’s been a real pleasant surprise.”
Milhoan said the McCain campaign is working on recruiting young voters, using such organizations as Young Republicans in local high schools. However, Milhoan said, the idea is not to influence young voters so much as make them aware of the electoral process, know what’s available and be aware of the fact that it’s critical to vote for both parties, and Democratic leaders agree.
“We’ve done a really good job here in Colorado with the educational process to create awareness,” Nelson said. “From canvassing to phone calling, we’re trying to engage people, not even just Democrats, just trying to get people to start listening to issues.”
Members of both parties agree this election is different. People may not vote along party lines as readily as in the past. The past eight years have changed the way people look at politics from both sides, Nelson said.
And we may never see a grassroots effort like this again.
“All of the elections ” House, Senate ” they’re all so critical this time around. A great deal of effort has gone into it, and it may never happen again,” Milhoan said.
Hildreth went as far as saying that ground-level volunteers could decide the election.
“This election will be very close,” he said, “and having a strong volunteer base with that enthusiasm and momentum going into Election Day could mean the difference between winning and losing.”
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