Obama sparks valley voters
Organization, appeal to all ages, give candidate for change a lift in Teton County.
By Noah Brenner, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
July 30, 2008
No one saw it coming.
Not the state party, not the local party, not the organizers for the respective campaigns. All said they expected a record turnout Saturday at the Teton County Democratic Convention and Caucus, and all said they expected Illinois senator Barack Obama to win.
They didn’t think Teton County would have the highest rate of participation in the state or the highest rate of support for Obama. In Teton County, about 1,200 people (34 percent) of all registered Democrats participated in the caucus and 919 (80 percent) voted for Obama.
While those two figures continue to leave Democratic officials stuttering, it looks like a unique combination of demographics and grass-roots organizing by the Obama campaign propelled the Illinois senator to a win in Teton County.
“The Obama campaign sent out a young staffer here on a permanent, full-time basis, and he had a couple helpers at different points,” said Teton County Democratic Party Chairman Larry Hamilton, who received four to six calls from the campaign. “It was the organization and the commitment they had compared to the Clinton campaign.”
In addition to paid organizer Jonathan Manton, the campaign had at least 180 valley supporters, including 40 who offered to volunteer.
In contrast, the Clinton campaign had a paid staffer in the county for only two hours on the day of the caucus.
“Clinton doesn’t have as good a ground game and the people they did have were in Ohio and Texas,” said Leslie Petersen, who volunteered for the Clinton campaign to build support in the valley and was part of Clinton’s steering committee in Wyoming. “We scrambled around the last few days and did what we could.”
The result was that 27 of Teton County’s 34 elected delegates to the state convention will support Obama. (Teton County has 17 delegates at the state convention, but to allow more participation the party voted to elect 34 half-delegates instead.)
Teton County’s support for Obama beat that of Albany County, home to the University of Wyoming and long-considered an Obama stronghold.
“I am still trying to figure that out,” Wyoming Democratic Party spokesman Bill Luckett said of Obama’s support. “I have heard that the organizers from the campaign that were focusing specifically on Teton County were just fireballs and did an impressive job.”
But mobilizing skids to get out and vote does not account entirely for Obama’s support in Teton County, which backed him with money as well as votes. According to donation records released by the Federal Election Commission, a total of 55 Teton County residents contributed to Obama’s campaign, while 13 donated to Clinton.
On a percentage basis, the split in the number of donors to the two campaigns is exactly the same as the split in delegates at the convention.
Though Clinton claimed fewer donors in the county, those donors gave more per capita, doling out more than $2,000 apiece on average for a total of $26,655. An Obama supporter’s average donation was a little less than $1,300. Federal limits cap contributions from individuals at $2,300 per candidate per election.
Though contributing to opposing political campaigns during a primary is a common practice nationwide, only Ian and Annette Cumming decided to hedge their bets. The Cummings, who are often among the largest contributors to Democratic causes in a county that is always among the highest in political donations per capita, gave $4,600 each to Clinton and $2,300 each to Obama.
WyObamania likely spurred the increased in overall turnout as well as Obama’s resounding victory, but not even grass-roots campaigning could fully account for Teton’s turnout.
The next-highest participation rate statewide was in Johnson County, where 90 Democrats (25 percent) caucused, and Albany County, where 1,297 Democrats (24 percent) turned out.
“I could understand Johnson County and I could understand Albany County and a couple of the others,” Luckett said. “I was just shocked by Teton County.
Hamilton pointed to the media attention and multiple campaign stops by each candidate as reasons that people came to caucus.
A contingent of faithful Obama supporters traveled to see him speak at events in Casper and Laramie the day before the caucus.
“I am more excited and hopeful about out political future,” valley resident Carey Sinclair said at the rally in Casper. “Even if he doesn’t win, this is the beginning.”
Most first-timers at the caucus simply said they felt it was time for a change and they wanted to be a part of it.
“I feel like this is an important presidential election and I just wanted to have my voice heard,” said Paul D’Amours. D’Amours said he came from a politically active family, growing up in politics-crazed New Hampshire, but he, his wife and their 2-year-old son were attending their first caucus.
George Erb has been voting for more than 50 years but never attended a caucus.
“We’ve got to have a change,” he said and then offered his opinion on the Bush administration “In all my years I have not seen a presidency that was such a disaster.”
Jackson Hole High School senior Willie Neal was not among those first-timers at the caucus, but that didn’t stop him from becoming a delegate for Obama to the state convention on May 23-24 in Jackson.
“It was important to me to campaign for him, and it feels very good to have trust put in you to represent him at the state convention,” he said from Anchorage, Alaska, where he is competing in a Nordic ski race. “This is the first year I have been able to vote, and I feel like I have been swept up by the Barack Obama campaign because I believe in his values of hope and bringing out the best in us.”
Neal hopes to be chosen as a delegate for Obama to the Democratic National Convention in Denver.
“As a state, we could send a message that we’re ready for change and that because we want change we are including different people to make this happen,” he said. “The Wyoming Democratic Party is old and eventually those old men are going to be gone. I would like to be a catalyst for youth to become involved in the party, and I would like to be a catalyst to foster political awareness in my generation.”
It was the presence of Neal’s generation that most struck Petersen.
“It was so wonderful to have such a great sense of idealism around,” she said. “There were so many people there that had never participated in something like that before; it just brought tears to your eyes.”
All the Democratic officials said they hoped the party could carry both the participation and the attention generated by the caucus process into the general election. One thing that could fuel both of those would be future visits from the candidates during the general election.
Both Hamilton and Luckett said it was possible Wyoming could see another high-profile visit, but not certain. Only somewhat joking, Luckett pointed out that past presidential winners have made it a point to stump in the Cowboy State.
“I don’t know if it is going to happen or not but I do know this; in ‘92 Bill Clinton visited the state and in 2000 George W. Bush visited the state and those two guys ended up in White House for eight years a piece,” he said. “I didn’t see Kerry with a public appearance here and I didn’t see George Bush senior. Obviously someone wants to win and that candidate is going to come back through Wyoming for the general election.”