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An Antidote to the 'Enthusiasm Gap': Good Organizing

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Buried in a September CBS/NYT poll about the gubernatorial races in Ohio was an interesting nugget. Question 66 asked respondents what campaign had contacted them most -- on the phone, at the door, or by mail -- and by a 2-to-1 margin people said Governor Strickland's Democratic campaign had reached out to them more frequently than John Kasich's Republican campaign. Coupled with other recent developments, this simple finding speaks volumes about the impressive ground game that Democratic campaigns, state parties, and Organizing for America volunteers have built -- not only in Ohio but in every state in the nation -- and pokes serious holes in the notion of an "enthusiasm gap" between Democrats and Republicans.

The past week alone has shown clear signs the enthusiasm-gap theory made popular by the chattering class is overblown. On Tuesday, President Obama kicked off the first of five "Moving America Forward" events with a rally at the University of Wisconsin in Madison -- and the lede of the AP story summed up the night: "If there's an enthusiasm gap for Democrats this election, it hasn't reached Madison." Dwarfing a February 2008 rally on the same campus that drew a crowd of 17,000, last week's Madison rally brought together 26,500 people -- the overwhelming majority of whom were UW students -- with more than 9,000 diverted due to space constraints to an overflow field where they were able to hear the president's remarks over loudspeakers.

Simply put, the Madison rally was a major step in the right direction -- and the audience was both excited and engaged. They cheered as the president ticked off the progress made on behalf of young voters in the past two years -- student-loan reform that makes college more affordable, health-insurance reform that allows students to stay on their parents' coverage until the age of 26, and credit-card reform that bans unfair rate hikes and predatory practices. And they cheered wildly as the president asked them to canvass, to phone bank, and most importantly, to vote on Nov. 2.

Geared toward young voters, the president's speech was part of a larger organizing effort across the country, with students at more than 200 colleges hosting "watch parties" to see a live webcast of the Madison event. For weeks we've been hearing that young voters aren't engaged -- that they've given up on the political process in Washington. According to the cynics, young voters were only a flash in the pan in 2008 and would return to their normal habit of staying home, especially during a midterm election. Yet at the watch parties and in other communities around the country last week, young voters not only tuned in to hear President Obama's special message to them -- they committed to vote and planned campus organizing drives for the last few days of voter registration and the final weeks of OFA's VOTE 2010 campaign.

The rally in Madison was the first of five Moving America Forward events the president will hold in coming weeks. Next Sunday, Oct. 10, President Obama will head to Philadelphia to talk to voters. His message could not be more clear -- this election is a choice between continuing to make progress on historic reforms or returning to the failed Republican policies that got us into this mess in the first place.

These rallies are just the tip of the iceberg. Democrats across the country are showing they are enthusiastic about these elections. The One Nation Rally held Saturday on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., was attended by tens of thousands of people from all over the country who support progressive causes. And with less than a month to Election Day, OFA supporters are taking their cues from the president and stepping up their game, too. Organizing for America's volunteer ranks have swelled in the weeks following Labor Day as more and more supporters commit to volunteering longer hours and more days a week. This work is happening behind the scenes, in small offices, in people's homes, and in cities and towns across the country. OFA's talented organizers are banging on doors, burning up phone lines, and talking to their friends and neighbors about the stakes this November.

This is what OFA organizers live for -- this is where the work we have been doing for months is going to pay off. We're carrying momentum from the president's rally and turning it into the organizing it's going to take to win close elections across the country. As the president said in a Rolling Stone interview featured in the Oct. 15 issue:

We have to get folks off the sidelines. People need to shake off this lethargy, people need to buck up. Bringing about change is hard -- that's what I said during the campaign. It has been hard, and we've got some lumps to show for it. But if people now want to take their ball and go home, that tells me folks weren't serious in the first place. If you're serious, now's exactly the time that people have to step up.

That spirit was on clear display in Ohio last week as early voting began in that state as it has in several others. As Jessie Sears explained to the Cincinnati Enquirer when she joined 30 other people in Hamilton County to camp out overnight before the start of early voting, "I think it is important. If we don't vote, so many of the things we have gained over the years could be lost -- Social Security, Medicare. People need help. We have to put the right people in office to help them."

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