In Iowa, Obama Backers Seek To Rekindle Enthusiasm

Nov 26, 2011
Originally published on November 29, 2011 9:34 am

President Obama's campaign is gearing up in the early states ahead of the 2012 election. In Iowa, Obama supporters are hoping to recapture at least some of the enthusiasm that catapulted a young senator from Illinois to victory in the state's leadoff caucuses four years ago.

On a chilly evening, a handful of volunteers are gathering around a coffee table in a suburban Des Moines living room to strategize about how to talk to their fellow voters. By and large, this is not the group of college students that turned out to support Barack Obama four years ago. The host, Saundra Ragona, a 69-year-old retired computer systems analyst, says her enthusiasm for the president dates back to her own youth.

"During the '60s and '70s, I was one of those people who went around screaming about civil liberties and civil rights," she said. "So when it came to be that an African-American could be president, I felt that my friends at that time had really accomplished something."

Now, Ragona calls Obama her "hero" and says she's determined to see him elected to another term. She says she's been committed since she first met him on the campaign trail in Des Moines four years ago.

"I was just following him everywhere. Once I shook his hand, I was his for life," she says laughing.

The Obama campaign is counting on activists like Ragona to stick with him in 2012. The campaign's Iowa website opens with the reminder: "Four years ago, Iowa started this movement," and adds, "Today, we can keep it moving forward."

Tom Reynolds, regional media director for the Obama campaign based in Chicago, calls the 2008 Iowa caucuses a "historic event" for the president.

"We saw massive turnout, changed the calculus, brought in new voters, and it was the beginning of a victory march for the president," he says.

The campaign is hoping to carry on that march, lining up volunteers across Iowa and the nation.

So far, the campaign has eight official offices in Iowa. Reynolds says they have already made more than 200,000 phone calls.

"Organizationally, Obama is ahead of where we were in '96, but in terms of his stand with the voters, he's not in as strong of a position as where Clinton was in '96," says Jerry Crawford, who was President Clinton's state campaign director in 1996, the last time a Democratic incumbent was running for re-election.

Ragona says she keeps an eye out for former Obama supporters who may have fallen away — folks like Lou Ann Rounds, 66, a former teacher who now works as a nanny.

"I've always been a Democrat, but I want to find out what Obama stands for now," Rounds says. "We know what he said he stands for. Now I want to know what he's done on issues that are important to me."

Rounds says she voted for Obama in 2008, but isn't sure what she'll do next year. Ragona invited Rounds to drop by and talk with her neighbors about the president's positions.

Reynolds, of the Obama campaign, says firming up support is what matters at this stage.

"This isn't about turnout for us right now; it's an organizing opportunity that we're going to capitalize and use for the general election," he says.

That's the way you begin, says Crawford, the former Clinton campaign director. He estimates that a well-organized ground campaign could make a difference of 2 to 5 percentage points on Election Day.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The protective debate over the federal budget deficit has already popped up at the Republican presidential race. It will undoubtedly be an issue once the Republican nominee faces President Obama. This next report takes us to Iowa, where the president's supporters are hoping to recapture at least some of the enthusiasm that catapulted a junior senator from Illinois to victory in the state's leadoff caucuses just four years. Iowa Public Radio's Sarah McCammon reports.

SARAH MCCAMMON, BYLINE: It's a chilly evening and a handful of volunteers are gathering around a coffee table in a suburban Des Moines living room. They're here to strategize about how to talk to their fellow voters.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What do you tell them when they ask you that why do they have to go if there's only one candidate?

I tell them that it's important for us to show our support to the president and let him know that we're still behind him.

MCCAMMON: By and large, this is not the group of college kids you might picture turning out to support Barack Obama four years ago. The host, Saundra Ragona, is a 69-year-old retired computer systems analyst. But she says her enthusiasm for the president does date back to her own youth.

SAUNDRA RAGONA: And during the '70s - '60s and '70s, I was one of those obnoxious people who went around screaming about civil liberties and civil rights. So when it finally came to the fact that an African-American could actually become president of the United States, I felt that me and my friends at that time had really accomplished something.

MCCAMMON: Now, Ragona calls Mr. Obama her hero and says she's determined to see him elected to another term. She says she's been committed since she first met him on the campaign trail in Des Moines four years ago.

RAGONA: I just was following him everywhere I could go after that. You know, once I shook his hand, I was his for life.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MCCAMMON: The Obama campaign is counting on activists like Ragona to stick with him in 2012. The campaign's Iowa website opens with the reminder: Four years ago, Iowa started this movement, and adds, today, we can keep it moving forward.

Tom Reynolds is the director of regional media for the Obama campaign, based in Chicago. He calls the 2008 Iowa caucuses a historic event for the president.

TOM REYNOLDS: We saw massive turnout and we basically changed the calculus of the electorate for the caucuses. We brought in new caucus-goers that had never turned out before. And it was the beginning of a victory march for the president.

MCCAMMON: The campaign is hoping to carry on that march, lining up volunteers across Iowa and the nation.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATIONS)

MCCAMMON: So far, the campaign has eight official offices in Iowa, and Reynolds says they've already made more than 200,000 phone calls.

Jerry Crawford was Bill Clinton's state campaign director in 1996, which was the last time a Democratic incumbent was running for re-election.

JERRY CRAWFORD: Organizationally, President Obama is far ahead of where we were in 1996, but in terms of his standing with the voters, he's not in as strong of a position as where Bill Clinton was heading into re-election in 1996.

MCCAMMON: Saundra Ragona says she keeps an eye out for former Obama supporters who may have fallen away, folks like Lou Ann Rounds. She's 66, and a former teacher who now works as a nanny.

LOU ANN ROUNDS: Well, I've always been a Democrat, but I want to find out what Obama stands for now. We knew what he said he stood for. Now I want to see what he's done and on issues that are important to me.

MCCAMMON: Rounds says she voted for Mr. Obama in 2008, but isn't sure what she'll do next year. Ragona invited Rounds to drop by and talk with her neighbors about the president's positions.

The Obama campaign's Tom Reynolds says firming up support is what matters at this stage.

REYNOLDS: This is not about turnout for us right now. It's an organizing opportunity, that we're going to capitalize and use when it comes time for the general election.

MCCAMMON: That's the way you begin, says former Clinton campaign director Jerry Crawford. He estimates that a well-organized ground campaign could make a difference of two to five percentage points on Election Day.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah McCammon in Des Moines.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.