Jun 252012
Aaron Levine recruited volunteers in New York on Sunday

To most passers-by, the tens of thousands of people who jammed the sidewalks of Greenwich Village on Sunday were just the typical tank-top-clad revelers of a gay pride weekend.

But to Aaron Levine, a 19-year-old, clipboard-toting volunteer sent there by the Obama campaign, everyone was a potential get. A group of twenty-somethings huddled in the shade under a Starbucks awning trying to stay cool: “They’re perfect,” he said. The long line outside the Duplex, a nightclub with views of the parade route: “They have nothing else to do now but sign up. It’s great.”

Mr. Levine was one of hundreds of Obama field staff members and volunteers who fanned out at a dozen gay pride celebrations across the country over the weekend with a meticulous set of marching orders from the Chicago campaign headquarters: Get names, cellphone numbers, and e-mail and home addresses. But most important, get commitments to volunteer.

At times, the parades could have been confused for Obama campaign rallies. In Chicago on Sunday, 300 of his campaign staff members and volunteers marched down Halsted Street through the heart of the gay district to chants of “Four more years! Four more years!” Along Fifth Avenue in New York, a group of about 200 Obama supporters who walked the parade route were cheered by crowds waving powder-blue “L.G.B.T. for Obama” placards, referring to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community. “Obama! Obama!” the onlookers cried.

While gay men and lesbians have been one of the most reliable Democratic voting blocs, supporting Democrats over Republicans by a ratio of about three to one in recent elections, the Obama campaign is capitalizing on what its strategists say is a perfect election-year opportunity. Just over six weeks ago, Mr. Obama declared his support for the right of gay couples to marry, which strengthened his political potency among gay people. Before the marriage announcement, even many of Mr. Obama’s top gay donors had questioned his commitment to their issues.

Now, campaign officials and other top Democrats said this was their best chance yet to convert enthusiasm among gay men and lesbians for Mr. Obama into more than just votes.

“It’s like shooting fish in a barrel this year,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic consultant who supervised the field operation for Senator John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign in several battleground states. “I think this year you’ll have not only people who say they will vote for him, but you will get a higher percentage of people who will actually be willing to do something for him. I think people are just tremendously grateful.”

Over the coming weeks, the campaign will begin contacting those who signed its commitment forms to try to recruit them for any number of jobs like making phone calls or getting on a bus for a day trip to swing states like Pennsylvania.

Gay pride marches are the Democratic Party’s equivalent of Tea Party rallies. There are few places this year where the Obama campaign is likely to find more motivated and supportive voters. “Pride is probably the best opportunity to engage the community in large, concentrated numbers,” said Jamie Citron, the national L.G.B.T. vote director for the Obama campaign.

The campaign’s gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender outreach is a vast undertaking that includes not just cities with large gay populations like New York but less obvious places like Council Bluffs, Iowa; Durango, Colo.; and Dayton, Ohio.

When gay and lesbian leaders in Columbus, Ohio, were planning their event for this month, the Obama campaign called them to ask if they could play a taped message from the president.

“They wanted to know if we had the ability to put it up on a big screen,” said Karla Rothan, executive director of Stonewall Columbus. Ms. Rothan did not have a big screen to offer, but she did have a booth in her festival and a spot in the parade for Obama volunteers, and the campaign jumped at the opportunity.

On the parade route in Cleveland on Saturday, Obama workers in a tent in Voinovich Park registered hundreds of people to vote.

In Denver last month, the chief executive of the GLBT Community Center of Colorado, Carlos Martinez, received an e-mail from the White House asking him to attend the June 15 reception for L.G.B.T. Pride Month. “At first it was like, ‘O.K., is this real?’ ” Mr. Martinez recalled. The Obama campaign, he added, has had a noticeable presence beyond just the gay pride events last weekend.

“I think they’re looking to really communicate what the president has done for the L.G.B.T. community. And with the White House,” Mr. Martinez said, “they haven’t always done a good job of that.”

The organizational presence at gay pride events underscores how tight the Obama campaign believes this election will be — and how no constituency is too small to overlook.

These efforts come at a critical time for gay civil rights, one that gives Democrats an opportunity to make the case that the differences between the two parties on gay issues could not be starker. Two requests for review of same-sex-marriage rulings are headed to the Supreme Court, numerous gay rights cases are being argued in lower courts, and marriage initiatives will be on the ballot in November in Washington, Maryland, Maine and Minnesota.

“It’s one of the sleeper issues in this race, because I really do think this comes down to ‘What does it mean to be American?’ kind of stuff,” said Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, a Democrat.

In New York on Sunday, the Obama contingent was tame compared with other parade participants. There was no stereo blaring Whitney Houston or the Weather Girls, and no float festooned with rainbow streamers or muscled go-go boys. But that did not dampen enthusiasm on the sidewalks, where people were grabbing Obama Pride stickers by the handful.

Diane Rose, a 51-year-old psychotherapist from Harlem, said she voted for Senator John McCain in the 2008 presidential election and considered herself a Republican. But as she marched in the parade with her lesbian partner, she paused briefly from handing out Obama stickers to ponder her change of heart. “Doing this,” she said, referring to his embrace of gay rights, “especially as an African-American Christian, he took a bold stand and risked losing a big constituency.”

The campaign has benefited from the growing acceptance of gay rights. A case in point: Mr. Levine, a straight Northwestern University student who gave up his summer to volunteer. Before they set out among the parade crowds, he and others working for the president were given a crash course in the art of the hard political sell.

“Once they’ve given you their info,” said Jerry Polner, 59, an accountant from Brooklyn who volunteers for the campaign, “they’re going to say, ‘I’m busy. I’m getting my bowling ball redrilled next week.’ ” Be persistent, Mr. Polner told them.

As the staff passed around Obama-themed stickers and buttons to hand out, Mr. Polner reminded the workers of a hard-and-fast campaign rule: “No button without a commitment.”