KELLOGG, Iowa -- Life jackets, kayaks and sunblock: three items you might never think of bringing to a political gathering, but in Iowa, Hillary Clinton volunteers are using them to change the face of grassroots organizing.
These volunteers call themselves “Kayakers for Hillary," and are plugging into local communities to organize support for the candidate in an unorthodox way. While the kayaking events are put together entirely by volunteers, the organizers have managed to get staffers from Clinton's Iowa team to attend both of the gatherings they've held so far.
Brian Beatty of Benton County has been involved in Democratic politics across Iowa for years, and said he decided kayaking would be a great way for fellow volunteers to connect and get involved in the campaign organization.
“What this event is trying to do is to bring people into the bright sunshine, enjoy nature and to have a lot of fun,” Beatty told The Huffington Post on Sunday, before unloading several kayaks from his car onto the shore of Rock Creek Lake. “We’re coming together, eating barbecue, having a little kayaking and talking about the issues.”
Nearly 20 kayakers gathered around picnic tables, snacking on hot dogs and discussing presidential politics. James Dahman, one of the Clinton Iowa staffers who attended the event, gave the volunteers a campaign update from his district.
“I think we identified in our area about 50 new supporters, which is amazing, very incredible,” Dahman said as volunteers clapped with excitement.
Last week, Clinton announced her campaign had raised $45 million since April, breaking the record, previously set by President Barack Obama in 2011, for the most primary money raised in a candidate’s first quarter. However, kayakers like 18-year-old Emily Fenner say raising money is not what this event is all about.
“This is like classic Iowa,” Fenner said. “We are trying to connect to all sorts of people, so we see people over there that we can talk to. We are just trying to get active involvement so we’re not just boring each other talking, speeches, stuff like that.”
The Clinton campaign has been working hard to court voters like Fenner, who will participate in her first caucus this February.
“Growing up, I looked so forward to turning 18 to be able to vote -- I’ve always wanted to be actively involved,” the high school senior said. “I’m thrilled that my first caucus and my first chance to vote, we have Hillary as a candidate.”
Despite the many volunteers clad in Clinton apparel who were hanging signs up in Rock Creek State Park, not everyone at the event had specifically committed to the candidate.
“My boyfriend is new to the politics thing, so I’m trying to bring him out and show him what it's all about,” Fenner said.
Clinton has launched major grassroots organizing efforts in all 50 states. In Iowa alone, she has ten organizing offices. Punya Krishnappa, one of 27 organizers on the ground in the Hawkeye State, encourages volunteers to think outside of the box.
“In Iowa, the opportunity to be as creative as you want is an opportunity you want to take advantage of,” Krishnappa said. “It allows folks who aren’t comfortable talking about politics, or don’t know where to go, to be in an environment that’s social.”
Clinton isn't the only Democrat with a large grassroots organizing effort in Iowa. Her challenger Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has consistently been attracting large crowds in the state. According to a recent Quinnipiac poll, 54 percent of likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa say they would support Clinton, versus Sanders' 33 percent. (In May, the same poll found Clinton leading Sanders 60 percent to 15 percent).
Krishnappa says the tightening of the race is giving both the Clinton campaign and its volunteers new motivation to find ways to engage Iowans.
“The great thing about an event like this is, it's local Iowans talking to their neighbors, their friends, they know these people, they see them every day in the community, so they trust them,” Krishnappa said.
In addition to Kayakers for Hillary, Clinton volunteers in Iowa have formed a morning yoga group in Cedar Rapids and a quilting group in West Branch. They're also planning regular community service projects across the state. With the Iowa caucuses only six months away, volunteers are hoping these events will leave a lasting impression.
“Hopefully, activities like this will start to make a more positive light on politics in general,” Beatty said.