Student organizers work to capture the youth vote for President Obama


These volunteers are working to register young voters and identify leaders




Every day, College freshman Gabe Delaney wears an American flag pin on his lapel.

He received the pin at a dinner with President Barack Obama when he participated in the National Young Leaders Conference, a high-school conference in Washington. Delaney was a finalist for the mock Speaker of the House position and was invited to dine with the President.

“Ever since I got to hear him speak, meet him and shake hands, I was floored,” Delaney recalled.

Delaney is one of several Penn students who is showing their passion for Obama by working to get him re-elected.

Fired up, ready to go

College junior Colin Zelicof believes that youth votes are essential to Obama’s re-election.

“We realized that [students] had an incredible impact in 2008,” Zelicof said. In April 2011, he and several like-minded friends had gathered to discuss what they could do for the Obama campaign. “At that point in time there wasn’t an apparatus in the campaign to really tap into the youth constituency.”

As Pennsylvania State Director of Students for Barack Obama, he reaches out to voters at Pennsylvania colleges, universities and high schools.

The official Barack Obama campaign recognizes the value of student votes.

“In 2008, Students for Barack Obama helped to shatter voting records by participating in the highest youth voter turnout in American history,” the campaign wrote in an official statement. “Today, these young adults are once again organizing on campuses across the country to help ensure victory in November.”

Penn Democrats Events Director and College freshman Matt Kalmans shares Zelicof’s philosophy.

“They need students desperately to help get out the vote on college campuses,” said Kalmans, a Daily Pennsylvanian staff member. “That’s how Democrats win elections.”

Kalmans does not work directly for the Obama campaign, but he works closely with the campaign through his work with Penn Dems. He and Penn Dems are reaching out to people who are not normally involved in the group to “address some of the issues surrounding the election.”

Penn was the site of the launch of “Greater Together — Young Americans for Obama” in November 2011. Greater Together is aimed to engage young Americans between the ages of 18 and 29.

The campaign said student volunteers are currently focused on voter registration and identifying leaders.

Delaney is one such leader working on voter outreach. Delaney participates in the Obama Fellowship program, which trains young voters to be field organizers for the Obama campaign. Delaney has weekly teleconferences and will be working full time over the summer.

“Right now, I’m in the phase of planning how to integrate the new freshmen,” he said. “In September, 2,500 new votes will enter the system in Philadelphia.” He admitted with a smile that he would be living in the Quad again next year — but unlike many, by choice.

“About half of the freshman class will be in the Quad, and they’ll be prime to be excited about voting,” he said.

In reaching out to other colleges and universities, Zelicof has both seen and fueled that excitement.

“Despite everyone’s various differences, the one common theme that seems to transcend all of that is that students in Pennsylvania are truly fired up and ready to go for the president.”

Road to politics

Kalmans became fascinated by politics at an early age during the 2000 presidential election. His parents took him through the steps of how a presidential election functions.

“When things didn’t turn out how everyone expected them to, I was kind of intrigued,” he said.

Kalmans began working on campaigns in middle school and later worked for senators.

“I worked for a Democratic senator and I worked for a Republican senator, so I got to see both sides of the aisle,” he said. “I really wanted to keep my mind open.”

Delaney’s fascination with politics also started at a young age. He began watching and memorizing YouTube videos of speeches by state leaders and figures like Martin Luther King Jr.

In the case of Obama, Delaney feels a personal connection with the president.

“The connection I see with the President’s story and mine is … we have such powerful maternal figures,” he said, adding that his biological father, like Obama’s, has been mostly absent in his life. “She still has this amazing way of making me view the world in such a way that it almost forced me to empathize.”

Both he and Obama wrestled with the impact of their fathers leaving at a young age, although Delaney was quick to add that his stepfather has done “everything and more that a father could do.”

Zelicof loves politics because it gives him purpose.

“Getting out of bed and helping to get the president re-elected after all he’s doing for both students and Americans at large is a very rewarding opportunity,” he said.

Future plans

While the three have several years to go before deciding on a career, their love for politics will certainly play a role.

“Something that really interests me and really something I think is very important is public service,” Kalmans said. He is unsure whether he’ll continue his work in politics after college.

Delaney, however, is sure.

“I would like to be a U.S. Senator,” he declared, adding with a smile, “That sounds very ambitious, I know.”

Zelicof paused momentarily before answering.

“As I said, it’s an incredibly rewarding experience,” he said slowly. “I don’t know where politically I’d work, either for a nonprofit or maybe for a think tank, but I really enjoy it and I think it’s a fun job. You never know.”

“I’d say… at the basis of everything that I do and why I do it, there’s a very simplistic reason,” Delaney said. “And that’s just helping people. I know it sounds cliché … but I would be nowhere if I had not received help.”

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