He expanded the Iowa electorate, sought out less traditional voters and upended someone with far more experience.
Charlie Comfort is no Barack Obama, but the teenager learned during the Democrat's presidential campaign the very skills he used to score his unlikely political victory last month over a 17-year incumbent. Comfort takes office today as the youngest school board member in the history of Oskaloosa, Iowa.
Comfort, an 18-year-old college freshman, has been a campaign junkie since before he was old enough to vote. His neighbors got to know him as the over-eager Obama booster in advance of the Iowa caucuses in 2008, and many of them supported his Oskaloosa school board bid nearly four years later. He helped organize precinct caucuses and was one of the Obama campaign's top volunteer recruits in the state that began the then-Senator's national political ascent.
Comfort was well-known around town in 2007 and 2008 for his shoe leather campaigning and was sent a thank-you note from Obama organizers and free yard signs from the campaign headquarters. When Obama came to the area, Comfort was rewarded with a prime spot next to the candidate in a group photo. His enormous grin pops out in the photo, inches from Obama's wide smile.
But Comfort's own political journey tells a more nuanced story about the difficulties Obama faces maintaining his coalition of young people to win a second term next fall. Comfort liked Obama back then because "of what he stands for," the then-15-year-old said in an interview from his home on New Year's Day, just before Obama won the caucuses.
The Comfort family was featured in a front-page story in the Washington Times as an illustration of the many divided Iowa households in the lead-up to the Democratic caucuses. His mother, Martha Comfort, backed Hillary Rodham Clinton, while Charlie's father, Keith, preferred John Edwards.
He wasn't even old enough to participate, but the teenager was the most persuasive of the bunch. He spent his hours after school and on weekends making calls and knocking on doors to track potential Obama supporters. He later helped in the general election and volunteered for Democratic candidates.
Comfort carried his political activism forward, attending school board meetings and serving more recently on the local planning and zoning commission.
But somewhere along the way, Obama lost Comfort's support. It started with a lack of action on the No Child Left Behind Act, something Obama had promised he'd revamp.
"The biggest turning point ... was the debt ceiling talks," Comfort told Roll Call in a phone interview one afternoon after class. "I was very disappointed ... he just sat there and pointed fingers."
His parents are still with Obama.
The Obama campaign didn't want to weigh in for this story, and Democratic operatives say they are confident that when young people are faced with a choice between the president and his eventual GOP rival, they will stick with Obama.
But Comfort won't be among them. He intends to attend caucuses for the Republicans this winter and is still deciding which candidate he likes.
After meeting Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.) over the summer, he said he found her charming and authentic and later backed her historic win in the Ames straw poll. He's "intrigued" by Texas Gov. Rick Perry.
With high political ambitions — a Google search for the teen yields as the first result a Facebook group called "Charlie Comfort for President in 2032" — Comfort is likely to stay involved beyond this four-year term on Oskaloosa's school board. He's a double major in journalism and government at William Penn University and has been writing about the 2012 presidential candidates as the political editor for Oskynews.org.
For his part, the school board incumbent, Don Patterson, 57, says he never really put much effort into his own campaign. He said he'd planned to retire because "17 years was enough," but when it looked as if all of the seats would be uncontested, he wanted to give voters "a choice" so they weren't turning over half the school board at once.
"I've got a little more perspective than an 18-year-old," Patterson, a building contractor, told Roll Call in an interview.
Patterson said he spent just $20 and put out only a handful of signs, as Comfort blanketed the neighborhood advertising his candidacy.
Comfort used the same techniques for his own race as he did for Team Obama — outreach via Facebook and deploying his teenage friends to use a call script during phone banks on his behalf.
"I think a lot of people discounted me," Comfort told Roll Call. "Poll workers told me after the election a lot of young people voted that day."
That also might have helped Nik Rule, a recent college graduate, get his high number of votes to win an uncontested seat on the school board.
Comfort raised $2,700, using the funds to buy ads in the newspaper and to put 35 radio spots on the two local stations. He won the only contested race on the Sept. 13 ballot, earning 434 votes to 315 votes for Patterson.
"You've got to hand it to the kid. He put up 100 signs on his own," Patterson said. "He doesn't have a full-time job. He has time to campaign. It is unusual for a kid that age to be involved. So many kids don't pay attention."
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