Obama, Romney volunteers hope to make a difference in fall election

Published 9:24 am Thursday, July 5, 2012

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Re-electing President Barack Obama is so important to Guy Hancock that he spends more time as a volunteer data collector at Obama’s campaign headquarters here than at his paying job as a college professor.

“He’s had a hard time with a lot of things that weren’t under his control but I think he’s done a great job,” said Hancock, 63. “I’ve never actually volunteered or been part of a campaign before, but I think it’s really important this year.”

Ousting Obama drives Karen Chew to spend hours in Fairfax County, Virginia, volunteering for Republican Mitt Romney. An Iraq war veteran forced into bankruptcy after losing her job as a paralegal, Chew said a new president is needed to help people like her who are struggling against the weak economy.

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“I know every day what people are going through as far as the discouragement from hitting walls upon walls upon walls. I’m living proof of it,” said Chew, 42. “If I can do something to push the country forward by helping Mitt Romney out, then I’m going to be here making phone calls.”

Call them passionate, idealistic, earnest, even a tad naive: The volunteers helping to power the Obama and Romney campaigns are outliers at a time when polls show record low public satisfaction with government and a growing belief that Washington isn’t on their side. While motivated by opposing goals, the volunteers have at least one thing in common: an abiding faith in the political process and a belief that who occupies the White House still matters.

Surveys, however, show that many voters don’t share that optimism.

An Associated Press-GfK poll taken in June found less than half of adults say the outcome of the Nov. 6 election will make a great deal or a lot of difference on three key issues: the economy, unemployment and the federal budget deficit.

Yet the volunteers soldier on.

“My best friend’s father gave me grief for coming here today,” said Liesa Collins, a Virginia Commonwealth University freshman volunteering at Obama campaign headquarters in Richmond, Va. “I grew up in a community that’s way more rich people, the Republican side of things. So it’s nice to be here at this office and making a difference.”

Both sides rely heavily on volunteer labor even as spending on high-priced staples like TV ads, polling and consultants keeps rising. Indeed, many of a campaign’s most labor intensive tasks — from staffing offices and making telephone calls to knocking on doors and registering voters — are done by volunteers.

In Ohio, the Romney campaign plans a “Buckeye Blitz” on Saturday aimed at getting volunteers to knock on 30,000 doors in a single day. Two high-profile Romney supporters, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, recently gave a pep talk to grass-roots leaders in the state stressing the importance of volunteer efforts.

“We’re a little bit behind the Obama people” in terms of on-the-ground organizing, Portman said. “But we’re catching up fast,” he assured the volunteers. “We have a lot of momentum on our side.”

Both campaigns said they didn’t know how many volunteers work for them. But each side often tries to discredit the other’s volunteer programs, particularly in battleground states like Florida and Virginia that are likely to help decide the election.

The rival camps also bicker over who has the most intense volunteer corps.

“Volunteers are coming out of the woodwork,” said Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director. “It’s not just your normal Republican base volunteers. It’s a lot of new people who haven’t been involved in politics before. We’ll take anyone who wants to replace this president.”

Obama’s 2008 campaign set an unprecedented standard for grass-roots involvement, creating MyBarackObama.com — an online platform to harness volunteer energy — and attracting an army of volunteers by casting his candidacy as a cause. “This election is not about me, it’s about you,” Obama told audiences then, often to thunderous applause.

After he was elected, supporters tried to channel that volunteer energy into Organizing for America, a grass-roots effort run by the Democratic National Committee to mobilize support for Obama’s policies. But the group never quite made good on its promise to develop a ground-level strategy for pushing his priorities as president.

Today, even the most ardent Obama backers acknowledge that incumbency and a limping economy have caused excitement about his re-election effort to ebb. Obama has acknowledged it himself, saying the campaign this year isn’t as “sexy” as it was four years ago.

First lady Michelle Obama tried to rekindle a sense of mission on a recent visit to Dale City, Va., where she implored volunteers to give it their all.

“Making all those phone calls, registering voters, giving people the information they need on issues they care about — that work is at the core of everything we do,” she said. “It’s not just that we support one extraordinary man … we are doing it because of the values and the vision for the country we all share.”

The sense of shared values brought Costa Rica native Gina Bonewit into the Obama campaign office in St. Petersburg, where she said she now spends 15 hours a week making phone calls.

“The president has done a good job trying to rebuild. That’s what guides me here,” said Bonewit, 37, pointing to Obama’s health care law and support for equal pay for women as reasons she continues to volunteer.

Obama’s recently announced support for gay marriage helped motivate Mindy Bertram to get involved. The 19-year old Virginia Wesleyan College sophomore said she expected young people to back the president as forcefully as they did in 2008, when Obama won two-thirds of voters under age 30.

“I feel strongly about this campaign, especially as a young voter,” Bertram said. “I believe Barack Obama is fighting for middle-class families and for everyone to have opportunities.”

Not surprisingly, Romney’s supporters express far different views of the president when describing their decisions to volunteer.

Matt Gagnon, who said he spends 20 hours a week doing digital work for the Virginia Republican Victory Fund, said concern about the economy and his 5-year old son’s future led him to volunteer.

“I don’t believe the president has any capability of managing the economy in any way, shape or form,” said Gagnon, 31. “Gov. Romney has a good handle on it. The contrast is pretty strong.”

In St. Petersburg, Fla., retired web designer Dorine McKinnon said she spends two days a week volunteering for Romney because she is frightened by Obama and Democratic leaders. She believes they are hostile to business.

“They don’t seem to understand that when businesses make money, the employees of that business make money,” said McKinnon, 59. She said: “Obama says things are getting better. But that’s not what I’m seeing.”