In this year's U.S. presidential election, both major parties are targeting constituencies that could swing the vote in their favor. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Portland, Oregon, on efforts in the Pacific Northwestern state to reach out to young voters and others.
Max Berger, 18, works for the Young Voter Project from a cluttered makeshift office not far from downtown Portland. He got involved in politics after being inspired by Vermont's Democratic ex-governor, former presidential candidate Howard Dean. Mr. Dean's populism and anti-war message brought a virtual army of college-age workers to the campaign trail.
"I'm taking time off from the University of Vermont," he says. "I joined the Dean campaign, and did not want to work for the Democratic Party because I was motivated by the [Iraq] war, and was really upset with the party for their lack of resistance to the deception that I saw going on."
Max is still not working for the Democratic Party, but for one of the many issue-oriented groups that are backing up its campaign. Republican and Democratic support groups are listed under their federal classification as "527s." His organization is looking for young people who support a liberal agenda and is urging them to vote, presumably for John Kerry.
Anna Galland says the Young Voter Project has sent activists to Minnesota and Ohio, in addition to Oregon, where they are using the phones and Internet to reach young voters.
"But the core of our program is really peer-to-peer, face-to-face contact," says Ms. Galland. "We've just found out that young people won't be excited to vote unless someone that they can feel the energy from, talks to them about it. If someone that they respect, someone that looks like them, sounds like them, maybe has a nose ring like them, maybe has a tattoo like them, someone who looks and feels like them encourages them to really make their voice heard this election."
Democrats are concentrating their efforts in Oregon's biggest cities, while Republicans are targeting rural areas and the suburbs. They are reaching out to entrepreneurs and business people, but are not ceding the youth vote to the Democrats, says Stacy Pannas of Oregon's Young Republicans. At 22, she was Oregon's youngest delegate to this year's Republican convention, and says many young people in Oregon think like her.
"I'm involved in the Republican Party because they stand for my beliefs, the things I believe in that are important to me, personal responsibility, fiscal responsibility," she explains. "This is the party that stands for what I believe in, and I think it represents the beliefs of the majority of Americans."
Oregon's Republican chairman, Kevin Mannix, says voters are concerned about security and the war on terror, and says many share the Republican view that too much government regulation hurts the economy. But he says Oregon is a state where the voters are not easily classified.
"We have a combination of populism, progressivism, and then old-fashioned what I'll call 'free rights thinkers,' that, is, folks who like individual rights to be respected, who also believe that government and society ought to be considerate of the needs of those who are less fortunate, but also a society which very much believes that the voters need to be respected and listened to and ought to be empowered," he says.
Oregon has a form of "direct democracy" that lets voters put issues directly on the ballot through a petition process. The most controversial issue this year would ensure that gay marriage does not become legal here. Called Measure 36, it would limit marriage to a man and woman.
Political scientist Robert Eisinger of Lewis and Clark College says Oregon has its liberals, its social and fiscal conservatives, and many voters in the middle. He calls it a "maverick state."
"You will see that there are more registered Democrats than Republicans. However, Oregon has a tradition and a history of voting for many Republicans," he notes.
Popular Republican politicians have included former senators Mark Hatfield and Bob Packwood.
Mr. Eisinger says the economy is one of the key issues in this election for Oregon voters. Republicans say President Bush is keeping the country safe, but they admit they have some persuading to do in convincing the voters in Oregon that the economy is improving.
Democrat Mike Siegel does not see the improvement. A former restaurant owner, he says the economic downturn has hurt service industries, and he was forced to close his Portland business this year. He is volunteering his time to help the Democrats.
"You know, especially in Oregon, the backbone of the economy is small business, and small business people all over the state, at least people that I've been talking to, are having such a difficult time," he says.
Both parties are reaching out to another constituency, military families. Oregon has sent many National Guard and army reserve troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, and Kevin Mannix says these volunteer soldiers are patriotic and are often Republican. Army reserve wife Kristin Rein is helping the Democrats, because she believes a Kerry victory would help to bring the troops home.
Both sides are embracing security issues. Student Nicholas Strychacz of Lewis and Clark College says Democrat John Kerry has the diplomatic skills to make the world safer.
"And I think many people in this country see Bush as being stronger on the international things, but I'm definitely for Kerry," she says. "I think that he brings a non-biased and a very stable element to the United States, and I think that he'd be excellent for international affairs.
Nick Gower, 16, a volunteer for the Bush campaign, says he is impressed by President Bush's character.
"This election, I think, is very important that President Bush get reelected because of the moral clarity and his moral leadership in a time of war," he says.
High school student Trevor Farmer is also backing President Bush, but only reluctantly.
"I don't really support him as much as I really, really dislike John Kerry and all the things John Kerry says, he says it to one crowd and then he'll say the opposite to another," says Mr. Farmer. "He's very undecided and won't state what he's for."
Both parties are reaching out to voters young and old as they urge their core supporters to be sure to cast their ballots.
Paige Richardson, the Oregon director for the Kerry campaign, has seen more grassroots energy in this election than in any before it.
"And we have volunteers in their 80s who are telling us that they've never seen more activity in an election and more focus. And so it's very, very exciting," says Ms. Richardson. "The other thing that's really heartening is that we've got lots and lots of young people, teenagers, college students coming in larger numbers than ever before, and so it's wonderful to see our democracy so invigorated and to see people so engaged in this election."
Oregon residents will start to make their choice before most of the rest of the country. The election in Oregon is conducted entirely by mail, and residents can vote from the middle of October until Election Day, November 2.