John McCain has decided that if he is to have any chance of winning the election, he must win Pennsylvania. It is a shrewd, maybe desperate, calculation that speaks to today's difficult political landscape. Pennsylvania has the second oldest population, and therefore is a natural demographic target for McCain.
Not so fast. There has been much talk about whether the commitment and enthusiasm of smitten 20-somethings might give Barack Obama an edge, but the Democrat has also built up a slim lead among older, more traditional voters in the Keystone State. There, recent polls have shown, voters care more about McCain's age than Obama's race.
Even more surprising than this inverted prejudice: Obama is leading in Pennsylvania and other swing states with the help of this older demographic—older men and women, particularly blacks, who first engaged with politics during the civil rights era and have now returned in full force.
My recent trip to the battleground state shows that some of Obama's most-devoted, most-invested volunteers are in fact retirees, Americans who long ago foreswore the kind of back-breaking grassroots work for which Obama's campaign is known. They are the parents and grandparents of the young people who have become the face of the Obama campaign. And the political forces that have brought them to Pennsylvania organizing may make all the difference on Election Day.
The West Philadelphia office of Obama for America lies on a windswept, trash-strewn block of the biggest city in one of the biggest swing states in this election. It's a clear-blue day—the last of the summer—and the mood inside the office, not unlike that of the candidate himself, is one of calm intensity. Stacks of paper documenting turf to walk or homes to call dot the space; computers bearing "vote builder" software line one wall. The office opened just after Labor Day, yet there are still not enough folding chairs to match the community's enthusiasm.
"Your handwriting is great," says Emma Davenport, one of three office managers, to a young girl constructing a sign to read: "West Philly for Obama." Emma turns to usher in a man with kindly, whiting eyebrows and a cane, obviously delighted to be in the mix. "This is Mr. Gill," she says. Freshly arrived from New York, Alfie Gill, 76, will spend the next three days in Pennsylvania, turning out the vote for Democrats.
Born in Barbados, where he served as the first assistant secretary of the island's Democratic Labour Party, Gill has not participated in an American political campaign since Barack Obama was six years old. "When Bobby Kennedy ran I had just come back here, and I didn't have a job and so I volunteered," he says with a pointed, clipped accent that reflects both his island roots and his former career as an acting coach.
Barack Obama has brought him back.
Every four years, the Democratic Party takes great comfort in—and provides much hype for—the idea that the youth vote will prove consequential in the presidential election. This year is no different. Much has been made about the fierce attachment young people feel to Barack Obama's candidacy. The intense focus on the youth vote has only grown in the months since the under-30 crowd tripled their 2004 turnout in the 2008 Democratic caucus in Iowa. Obama has capitalized on this by creating positions for "Organizing Fellows"—students and recent graduates with time and idealism to spare.
But the closeness and historic nature of the 2008 election has figured into the decision of many former activists to get back onto the hustings. Across the country, the Obama campaign has effectively tapped the energies of older supporters who have both time and long connections to their individual communities.
Glenna Fisher, a 70-plus, retired white steelworker in Middletown, Ohio, told a reporter that the Obama campaign reached out to her for recruiting help. "My church had a joint service with our sister church, a local African-American congregation," she said. "There I talked with a friend who gave me several names of people who also might be interested in volunteering with the campaign." Six years after leaving the workforce, Glenna is back, too—serving as what the Obama campaign calls a "neighborhood team leader."
"There's never been anyone who has inspired me the way he has," says the honey-brown Alicia Simmons (mother of Shannon, the sign maker), of Obama. Simmons—wearing a flashy black T-shirt that reads "Philadelphia PA presents an American President"—first voted halfheartedly in 1980 for Jimmy Carter. This year, she says, is completely different: "I've done very little in the past, and when asked; never to this extent. I've been inspired—to my own surprise."
Now retired on Long Island, Gill came down to Philadelphia on his own dime during the primaries and had planned several trips in the run-up to the Election Day. The Pennsylvania race is still closer than it should be in Gill's mind. Asked why he travels so far to help Obama, he cries: "This—this!" while pointing to his brown wrist. "He is better qualified, better educated. It hurts me to see that with all those qualities, it's still so close."
Though he is four years older than John McCain, Gill has harsh words about the candidate and his age: "McCain is a senior citizen who is contradicting himself every day." (Sarah Palin is "an empty cup," he also offers.) Showing his own age, and discussing his once-radical politics, he continues, "the hero of my life is not who you would think. Not Malcolm X, not MLK. My hero is Paul Robeson." He begins to hum "Old Man River" in wistful, grandfatherly fashion.
Another volunteer soon intervenes, plunking Gill in front of a telephone and handing him a stack of call sheets. His task: inviting voters to the Harambe Charter School the following Thursday, at 66th and Media.
"Ask if they're supporters of Barack Obama, if they're interested in getting involved," the aide says.
"But don't try to convert them?" Gill asks.
"If they need converting, convert them."
The 20-something volunteer runs him through the system of rating voter preference, from one (supporting Obama) to five (supporting John McCain). "Here's a pen," he concludes. Gill, delicately munching a scone, is happy to get started.
Part of the uptick in older voters volunteering for Obama is a result of cross-generational influence. Throughout the presidential race, children have exerted an enormous impact on parents and grandparents: Caroline Kennedy and Sen. Claire McCaskill both cited the needling of their children as one of the reasons they came out swinging for Obama; Jesse Jackson Jr. has been a surrogate for Obama longer and louder than his father. A much-watched humor video by Sarah Silverman encourages young Jews to head down to Florida to convince older relatives to vote Obama. And countless other political conversations are likely happening around the country. Obama for America recently released its own official video called "The Talk," featuring supporters as young as 13 making the case for Obama.
In Philadelphia, the influence also cuts both ways. Simmons says she's passed her enthusiasm along to both her daughter, 11, and her mother. Pausing over the phone, she watches Shannon doodle with pride. "She's actually worked the whole campaign with me," beginning with voter registration and canvassing in February. And Simmons knows her mother "is more involved because of my excitement, my enthusiasm…. She comes from that generation where she knows how important it is to exercise your right to vote," she says, with a knowing tone. "I've been saying, 'Mom, when are you going to that community office to start knocking on doors?'"
Celeste Borden, 91, another Pennsylvania resident, cast her first vote for President Franklin Roosevelt. She said that because of her own daughter, she's more politically involved than she has ever been. "I'm retired, and I'm up in the age and I'm not active, but even when I was in the hospital she would bring [campaign literature] to the hospital and I distributed it to the doctors and the nurses while I was in the hospital," she says. "They loved it."
It seems that through the online networks and phone chains and house parties that have defined the Obama campaign, older voters have seized what many believe is their first chance in decades to impact politics. Next week, they will be able to weigh the impact of their multigenerational effort in Pennsylvania and around the country.
Dayo Olopade is a regular contributor to The Root.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.