Jacob Koch ’10 first met Barack Obama six years ago. The then-Illinois state senator delivered a speech at an anti-war rally he attended in Chicago. At that moment, Koch was inspired to work for the man who would become America’s 44th president.
“After that I started to volunteer,” Koch said. “I used to stand out in front of stations and pass out info. Ever since then, I’ve always been the Obama guy.”
When Koch came to Yale as a freshman, he became active in Yale for Obama — which was founded in the spring of 2007 — eventually becoming the group’s campus coordinator. Back then, he had just a vague idea of what the organization was capable of doing.
The more than 300 students in Yale for Change — a coalition of Yale for Obama, the Yale College Democrats and Students for a New American Politics — phone-banked and canvassed for weeks on end. Many of them developed personal stakes in Obama’s successful bid for the White House, though it often meant failing a midterm or two.
The organization’s disbanding has left some students worried that political activism could fall by the wayside. But it has also stirred memories of one group of students’ inspiring road to victory.
PUTTING CONNECTICUT ON THE MAP
Even before Yale for Change was officially formed, Yalies across campus were excited for Obama.
A News poll in January put Obama ahead of Sen. Hillary Clinton LAW ’73 by double digits, 26.4 percent to 12.1 percent. As a state, however, Connecticut was leaning toward the senior senator from New York. A poll of the state conducted that same month by the University of Connecticut had Clinton ahead of Obama by a similar margin, 41 percent to 27 percent.
“Connecticut hadn’t been considered one of the contested states,” Yale for Obama Campaign Coordinator Benjamin Lazarus ’10 recalled in an interview. “Everyone thought Hillary was going to win.”
With Clinton seemingly invincible in Connecticut, Obama’s campaign dispatched only a few paid staffers to the Constitution State, Lazarus said. Canvassing for Obama, then, was left largely in the hands of grassroots organizations such as Yale for Obama.
Democratic field organizers in Connecticut said Yale for Change’s efforts during the election were significant.
“They were extraordinary,” Connecticut Obama field organizer Jennifer Just. “There were 20,000 phone calls made in the rest of state, and 30,000 in Yale. They were a very large group and very well run.”
And as the results for the primary came in, Lazarus said all the stress and work paid off. Obama won in Connecticut a mere four percentage points. In New Haven, where Yale for Obama canvassed the most, the President-elect won by a margin of 4,400 votes.
COMING TOGETHER FOR ‘CHANGE’
On June 7, Clinton conceded the democratic presidential nomination to Obama. Soon after, Yale for Obama, the College Democrats and Students for a New American Politics began to talk about collaborating for the general election, Lazarus said.
“We knew the job during the general election was too big to do it on our own,” Lazarus said “It didn’t make sense for us to be working separately.”
Yale for Change phone-banked four nights a week, sometimes supervising as many as 40 volunteers. Weekend canvassing to battleground states drew as many as 65 people per trip, Lazarus said. At every event Yale for Change held, Lazarus added, more people showed up than had signed up.
Through it all, the unofficial headquarters of Yale for Change was Lazarus and Koch’s off-campus apartment.
“Jacob and I could constantly bounce ideas off each other,” Lazarus said. “A lot of work got done in that apartment.”
Koch, Lazarus, Yale College Democrats President Ben Shaffer ’09 and John Riley ’10 of SNAP PAC said they worked 15 to 25 hours a week during the weeks leading up to the election. Lazarus asked his French professor to push back a test for him, but even with the extra time he still “bombed” it, as he put it.
But the time spent on the campaign paid off in other ways — Koch’s and Lazarus’ energy drew students into the group.
“I was stirred by Obama, but more than that it was Jacob and Ben [the leaders for Yale for Obama] who inspired me to get involved,” Josh Gordon ’11 said. “Their passion for this cause was incredible to watch, and after the first few meetings I knew I had to be a part of it.”
As Election Day drew closer, Yale for Change organizers worked 12-hour days, Koch said. Their efforts culminated the weekend before the election: Yale for Change sent over 100 students on Nov. 1 and 2 to canvass in swing states such as Pennsylvania and New Hampshire. In Connecticut, the group worked to secure the victory of Congressman-elect Jim Himes through canvassing and phone-banking. A spokesman for the Himes campaign called the group “a tremendous positive force” in the race, which Himes won over incumbent Republican Rep. Chris Shays.
“In a race that was won by 4 percentage points, Yale for Change contacted thousands of voters in the Fourth Congressional District by making phone calls and knocking on doors,” the spokesman, Michael Sachse, wrote in an e-mail message. “In addition, the energy a grassroots student-run organization brought to the campaign was invaluable.”
In Pennsylvania, Obama field organizer Zach Marks ’10 said Yale for Change’s canvassing got Obama supporters to the polls in key areas of Philadelphia with historically low turnout.
Election Night was a remarkable and highly emotional event for the whole organization. Shaffer does not normally cry, said roommate Severin Knudsen ’09, but when networks projected an Obama victory at 11 p.m., Shaffer burst into tears of joy.
“Everyone knew we had each done everything we could to make it happen,” Lazarus said. “I never thought I would watch Obama’s acceptance speech in a room filled with 300 people.”
NOV. 5 AND BEYOND
Transitioning from the election cycle to student life at Yale was difficult, Shaffer said. Koch said that it took him almost a week after the election to become a “serious student” again. Both Shaffer and Riley griped in interviews about the two weeks’ worth of reading they hope to catch up on during Thanksgiving break.
The day after the election, Yale for Obama sent an e-mail to the 1,000 students on its panlist. The organization thanked them for their efforts and encouraged them to stay involved in political organizing, Lazarus said.
At the next Yale College Democrats meeting the following Monday, the crowd was smaller than it had been during the campaign, Shaffer said. But Shaffer said he does not think the elevated political energy on Yale’s campus will disappear post-election. Shaffer listed lobbying efforts and community service as examples of ways students might remain involved in political organizing.
“I think people were inspired by Obama because he asked people to do more,” Shaffer said. “It would seem unusual if [that energy] would all completely dissipate.”
Of the six students interviewed, only half said they will continue to engage in political activism.
Margaret Katcher ’11 said that after growing up in a politically active family, she was motivated to volunteer for this presidential campaign in a more significant way than casting a ballot. Katcher said she would “absolutely stay involved” even now that the election has ended.
“I joined Yale for Obama last year, but not Yale Democrats,” Katcher said. “Now I plan on learning more about the lobbying that Yale Dems does, and hopefully consistently work with Yale Dems.”
The students interviewed said activism and enthusiasm not only make a different in the political landscape but also enrich individuals through interaction with the fabric of American society.
And now that the election is over, Koch is already looking ahead.
“I really feel like I’ve been campaigning for Barack Obama for about six years,” Koch said. “It’s defined my life for most of my conscious existence. It sort of takes some time to figure out what’s next.”