Why did 17 University students get up early Saturday morning and drive two and a half hours to spend the weekend in Milford, a small town in Pennsylvania?
“To win,” said Dan Levine ’11.
Levine organized the trip for Wesleyan Students for Obama, which went to work for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s campaign in the hotly contested Pike County region of Pennsylvania. According to a USA Today article that was being distributed by the Obama campaign, Pike County, where Milford is located, has one of the highest percentages of undecided and independent voters in the state Given Pennsylvania’s electoral importance, it may be one of the decisive regions in the outcome of the 2008 presidential elections.
First and foremost, however, the group from the University went to the area because it is the closest county with a campaign field office.
According to Sarah Koenig, a local campaign volunteer, many people from surrounding states have been coming to Pike County to canvass alongside the region’s Obama supporters. The volunteers go from door to door seeking support for their candidate.
“They’re the key to this campaign,” she said. “People are sometimes wary of making a decision about a new candidate, and if they see you giving up your Saturday to knock on doors, they’re seeing the passion and the excitement of this campaign”
The work had its challenges. Some residents ignored the canvassers. Others were downright hostile.
“Occasionally, the minute you’d say ’Obama,’ they would say ,’you can’t campaign here,’” said Nicolas Mendoza ’11.
But he remained undeterred, explaining that he would continue to work for the campaign in key states.
“We have to win this thing really badly,” Mendoza said. “Things just can’t continue like this.”
Levine expressed similar sentiments as he encouraged volunteers after two hard days of campaigning, occasionally in the rain.
“I know it can feel a little futile going out and finding so few people to talk to or who seem persuadable, he said. “But just being out there is a great public face for the campaign…These actions add up, and are going to be part of what helps Obama win Pike County.”
The students were generally pleased with their experience.
“A lot of people were undecided and interested in what we had to say,” said Corrine Duffy ’11.
Campaign staff encouraged volunteers to engage voters by telling stories of their personal reasons for supporting Obama. Most leveled harsh criticism at the Bush administration, the Republican Party, and Republican presidential candidate John McCain. Many also cited the loss of America’s international prestige, while others talked about experiences in failing schools or economic hardships under the Bush administration. Few directly mentioned Obama. Levine thought this strategy of relying on the personal accounts to garner support was a good one.
“People do have very important personal reasons and it’s great to hear why they’re out here,” he said, “Everyone I talked to—from strong Obama supporters to people who are on the fence, and even people who are strong McCain supporters — was happy to see us out there. I had a lot of people tell me it’s great to have kids out here doing political work.”
This is neither the first nor last trip that Wesleyan Students for Obama is undertaking for the campaign. A group also traveled to New Hampshire before the primary election in January. Traveling volunteers generally stay with local Obama supporters. The team that went to Milford, for example, was housed in vacation cabins in an isolated forest. Duffy seemed to view these surprising accommodations as an unexpected perk.
“I’d go back just for those cabins,” Duffy said.
Wesleyan Students for Obama will return to New Hampshire in the coming weeks as part of the “Student Democrat Campaign Invasion,” which will attempt to mobilize voters in that state. Students will also be campaigning in New Hampshire during the University’s Fall Break, as well as organizing phone banks to call undecided voters in swing states. The group also hopes to return to Pike County.
Indeed, the campaign in Milford would certainly like to have students back. Over the weekend, volunteers in that area canvassed in many neighborhoods and knocked on more than 500 doors.
“It was our best day ever,” Koenig said.