Trash pick-ups and burlesque: Philly volunteers try to boost their presidential picks

Listen 1:35
Local band Upholstery performs at the Philly for Bernie Variety Show fundraiser. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Local band Upholstery performs at the Philly for Bernie Variety Show fundraiser. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

With 11 Democrats vying to be their party’s presidential nominee and two Republicans challenging President Donald Trump, supporters in the Philadelphia region have already been politicking for their candidates for several months ahead of the April primary.

Efforts range from tried-and-true voter outreach methods — think tabling and street canvassing — to more out-of-the-box events.

For supporters of the former tech executive Andrew Yang, getting creative is critical.

Unlike most of his competitors, Yang has never held political office, so “it’s important to stand out,” said Brittany Anderson, 26, the Yang Gang Regional Organizer in Eastern Pennsylvania.

Anderson, who works in IT and has never volunteered for a candidate before, helps keep local Yang Gangs informed of activities, which intentionally run the gamut.

“Everyone is different. Some people are interested in sports, some people are interested in art … We want to make sure we touch people in ways that they care about,” Anderson said. “When it’s just people going up to you on the street, that can be great too, but it doesn’t feel as personal.”

In addition to the traditional tabling at busy intersections, the group painted a mural in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood touting Yang’s “freedom dividend” — a proposal that would give every American adult $1,000 each month.

And in Doylestown, a Yang supporter made a bobblehead in the entrepreneur’s image that he carried around his neighborhood, according to Anderson.

Last year, about a dozen volunteers in Philadelphia hosted a garbage pick-up at Pennypack Park while wearing their Yang t-shirts and other swag — no clipboards involved.

“At that park, we found … very dangerous, dirty needles on the ground 10 feet from a childrens’ playground, so you know that’s obviously something that’s very important to people in Philadelphia to be able to feel like we can have somewhere safe,” said Anderson.

Anderson said events like the trash pick-up show the community that their candidate and supporters care and carries more weight than just asking someone to sign a petition.

Bernie Sanders swag for sale at the Field House at the Philly for Bernie Variety Show fundraiser. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

But it’s not just Yang’s supporters marketing their pick.

Volunteers backing President Trump have held happy hours and rally watch parties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey to encourage voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts. Supporters of Southbend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg hosted a birthday party for him in Asbury Park last month. And voters backing Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders are toying with the idea of projecting their candidate’s face on walls across the city, according to one local organizer.

Debate watch parties at bars have also become a way to publicly highlight a candidate’s support while getting his or her name out there. Those hoping Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren will clinch the nomination point to the almost 300 people who crammed into a Philly bar to see her take the debate stage in June.

PASNAP union member and Temple nurse Marty Harrison makes a case for Bernie Sanders as president at the Field House in Philadelphia. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

‘Everything is on the line’

Raising a candidate’s profile is especially important right now for local supporters of all presidential contenders because good will alone won’t get them on the Pennsylvania ballot.

Pennsylvania released nomination petitions last Tuesday and the deadline to submit 2,000 signatures is Feb. 18.

Volunteers said demonstrating to early states like Iowa that a candidate has support in a swing state like Pennsylvania is also important.

“Everything is on the line,” said Ilya Knizhnik, who works as an IT manager in health care and has volunteered with Philly for Warren since the summer. “There’s only a couple of tickets out of Iowa and it’s only the candidates that place well and some billionaires that can just afford to waste money that are going to come out of it.”

Knizhnik’s group has connected volunteers with Warren’s campaign to phone bank early states (with events like Calling and Caffeine where volunteers call undecided voters from a coffee shop) and write postcards to voters to Iowa.

Much of a candidate’s success comes down to the number of supporters willing to put in the work, according to some volunteers.

Bill McGlinchey, of North Wilmington, volunteers with Delawareans for Joe Biden, which focuses on leveraging the support the former vice president enjoys in the state after being their senator for decades.

The group collects signatures to get Biden on the ballot, but mostly focuses on encouraging people to volunteer for the campaign.

“We’re a small group that wanted to take a different role and say, how do we tap into the support that Joe Biden has enjoyed in Delaware all of these years and how do we tap into that with Delawareans contacting other Delawareans?” said McGlinchy.

The Belly Dance Fusion Troupe performs at the Philly for Bernie Variety Show fundraiser. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Sanders supporters in Philadelphia say they’ve built up their volunteer base through a mix of neighborhood and citywide volunteer meetings, debate watch parties, and most recently, a seven-hour variety show.

The show, which doubled as a fundraiser and peppered in a series of speakers, was held at the Field House at Reading Terminal Market Friday night, and included improv comedy, live music, burlesque and of course, the passing of nomination petitions to get Sanders on the April ballot.

“We thought it might be a way to get people involved in the campaign in a low-commitment way,” said Joanne Beer, a postdoctoral researcher and co-chair of the Philly for Bernie volunteer group. “Maybe people are not that into politics, but then this will hopefully spark some interest.”

Fundraiser attendees posed with a Bernie Sanders cutout at the Philly for Bernie Variety Show fundraiser. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Building that sense of community is what will get people to come back for the final leg of campaigning, according to Beer, and that’s also what will eventually move the needle in November.

“Ultimately, I think the best thing to do is have face-to-face conversations,” Beer said. “To really affect the results on Election Day, I think that research has shown that door-to-door canvassing is the best way to influence people.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal