WASHINGTON (AP) — Grass-roots volunteers flocked to Barack Obama last time. This time, the president’s campaign is in recruiting mode.
Facing no primary challenger, Obama is trying to rebuild a massive organization of supporters to help boost his efforts next year in the face of a struggling economy and weakened political standing.
Obama’s campaign has spent the past week holding about 1,500 events around the nation, from small neighborhood gatherings to one-on-one meetings in coffeehouses, marking the one year to go before the incumbent Democrat faces the electorate. The events, including a chunk of them this weekend, comprise the nuts-and-bolts of a campaign: local phone banks, voter registration drives, door-to-door voter canvassing and house parties. And they’re all aimed at organizing the legions of activists who formed the core of Obama’s coalition in 2008 — black and Latino voters, women and college students and voters entering the workforce — long before Election Day 2012.
Such activities could help determine next year whether Obama can mobilize sufficient support to overcome the larger forces acting against his campaign; namely, broad concerns among the public over joblessness and the direction of the country as well as disillusionment among some of his 2008 supporters.
Back then, Obama built a large base of volunteers in dozens of states that held primaries and caucuses and then quickly moved on to the general election. Many of the volunteers were drawn to Obama because he was new to the national stage and sounding a message of hope and change. Such support was said to contribute to victories in states typically unfriendly to Democrats, such as Indiana and North Carolina.
But this time, Obama is the president with a governing record that doesn’t sit well with some who worked to help him get elected.
His campaign is undeterred.
“Block by block, person by person, student by student, we are going to build the biggest grass-roots effort in American political history,” declared campaign manager Jim Messina at an event Wednesday at the University of Pennsylvania.
The campaign held the Philadelphia round-table discussion to launch a program aimed at mobilizing young voters on college campuses. Messina told about 250 college and high school students and others watching online that there were 8 million registered voters between the ages of 18 and 21 who weren’t old enough to vote in 2008 but would be harnessed to support the president.
Yet, the young voters, many of whom were galvanized by ending the Iraq war in 2008, are not an easy sell this time.
In 2008, Obama won voters between the ages of 18-29 by a margin of about 2-to-1, but polling has shown some signs of softening support as many recent college graduates face high levels of unemployment. The students heard from Messina, White House policy adviser Melody Barnes and others who trumpeted the administration’s support for college aid and efforts to maintain health care coverage for young people.
Kyle Musto, a 17-year-old high school senior from West Philadelphia, attended the event but said he was undecided as he considers his first vote in a presidential election. “I have friends who are very opposed to Obama. I have friends who are very pro-Obama. I’m very open to anything,” he said.
Meetings like this are more common because Obama has avoided a Democratic challenger and his team can’t point to contested primaries and caucuses as reasons for people to get involved now. So they are finding motivation elsewhere.
As Obama has tried to win passage of elements of his jobs agenda in Congress, party loyalists regularly receive emailed updates from campaign officials urging them to pressure Republican lawmakers by phone, email or Twitter. At the Philadelphia event, students were encouraged to text their ZIP code and the phrase “Greater Together,” the name of the young voter program, to the campaign so they could receive more information. Students were also asked to urge their Facebook friends to support the campaign.
Others point to the Republican presidential debates as a motivating tool.
“Republicans have done a great job of firing up the Democratic base, giving us a sense of who they are,” said Democratic strategist Steve Hildebrand, a top Obama campaign aide in 2008.
The 1,500 events will help the campaign assess the status of its organization community by community. Volunteers have logged thousands of phone calls encouraging past supporters to participate while on Sunday, campaign staffers will fan out across the country for low-dollar fundraisers in New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Washington, Chicago, Nashville, Tenn., and Atlanta.
The campaign, meanwhile, is planning to use January’s Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary as a way of organizing tool for 2012 — both states are expected to be contested in the fall election.
The approach resembles the extra attention President Bill Clinton paid on the two states in 1996 even though he didn’t have a primary opponent. In the weeks before the early contests, Clinton and top administration officials traveled to Iowa and New Hampshire to offer rebuttals of the Republican field while the campaign held events around the state.
Obama’s campaign has opened eight offices across Iowa and told reporters this week it had held more than 700 training sessions and made more than 100,000 phone calls to Iowans since the campaign opened in April. In New Hampshire, the campaign is opening its second office this weekend and has logged more than 90,000 phone calls and 2,200 one-on-one meetings across the state, all aimed at boosting turnout and support in 2012.
“You’ve got to sell this as a building block for the general” election, said Charlie Baker, a veteran field organizer of Democratic presidential campaigns who ran President Bill Clinton’s New Hampshire effort in 1996.