Screened 4/22/17 at the Iowa Motion Picture Association Awards in Pella, Iowa.
Screened 1/28/17 at the Montgomery Film Festival.

Shot in the month before the Iowa caucuses, this film aims to provide viewers with a deeper understanding of what happened in the 2016 Democratic primary campaign. The vast majority of media coverage in this election cycle focused on the candidates and campaign strategy. With a moment-driven approach, this film instead focuses on the important personal stories of six campaign volunteers and explores why these people are willing, without pay, to put their lives on hold in support of a candidate. The audience sees what these volunteers actually do when they volunteer and learns about why they choose to participate. The common thread among these campaign volunteers is that they believe their work can make a difference. The film’s title, Believers, is an homage to that common thread. 

The Volunteers

Travis Shephard, 23, dropped out of high school at 16 to help his mom survive financially after she was laid off. He said he supported Sanders because he gave him a new understanding of the world. “Bernie Sanders himself was like a gateway to opening up a whole world that I didn't even know existed,” he said. “He treated me like I was an intelligent human being….It just blew me away just hearing what he had to say. How realistic it was.” 

Travis Shephard, 23, dropped out of high school at 16 to help his mom survive financially after she was laid off. He said he supported Sanders because he gave him a new understanding of the world. “Bernie Sanders himself was like a gateway to opening up a whole world that I didn't even know existed,” he said. “He treated me like I was an intelligent human being….It just blew me away just hearing what he had to say. How realistic it was.” 

Houra Sadeghi, 17, was born in Iran and said she supports Sanders because of his respect for all people and desire for inclusivity. “For him it's about equality,” she said. “He's going to fight for you whether you're gay, whether you're lesbian, whether you're Muslim, whether you're Latino, whether you're Christian. Whoever you are, he's going to fight for your rights and he's not going to be racist in any sort of point of view.” 

Houra Sadeghi, 17, was born in Iran and said she supports Sanders because of his respect for all people and desire for inclusivity. “For him it's about equality,” she said. “He's going to fight for you whether you're gay, whether you're lesbian, whether you're Muslim, whether you're Latino, whether you're Christian. Whoever you are, he's going to fight for your rights and he's not going to be racist in any sort of point of view.” 

Frantz Whitfield is a pastor for a primarily African-American church in Waterloo. He said he believed that as an African-American, it was important for him to show his support for Bernie Sanders. “I think it's important that people see that someone from Iowa, especially an African-American is going forward to say that Bernie Sanders is what this country needs…..[He] is the only candidate who has come to the black community, especially in the faith community to talk. He was here at our church about a month or so ago to talk to our congregation,” he said. “The fact that he made that stop here in the community, it said a lot about him.” 

Frantz Whitfield is a pastor for a primarily African-American church in Waterloo. He said he believed that as an African-American, it was important for him to show his support for Bernie Sanders. “I think it's important that people see that someone from Iowa, especially an African-American is going forward to say that Bernie Sanders is what this country needs…..[He] is the only candidate who has come to the black community, especially in the faith community to talk. He was here at our church about a month or so ago to talk to our congregation,” he said. “The fact that he made that stop here in the community, it said a lot about him.” 

Vikki Brown, 63, is a retired marketing professional who has been active in political organizing since the 1960s when she was a Child Crusader in Birmingham, Alabama. She said she was volunteering for Hillary because of her commitment to fighting for the people who are important to her. “When I talked to [Hillary] about my mom and recently losing my dad at my mom's age and [not affording] the medication…she actually grabbed me and hugged me and I mean, you could feel the love, you could feel the concern so I know. She's my candidate. She was my candidate before then but even more so because it's personal. Mine is personal so I know that she's going to be there for me,” she said. “I volunteered because I know that people are trying to make a difference but they need help. They can't do it alone.” 

Vikki Brown, 63, is a retired marketing professional who has been active in political organizing since the 1960s when she was a Child Crusader in Birmingham, Alabama. She said she was volunteering for Hillary because of her commitment to fighting for the people who are important to her. “When I talked to [Hillary] about my mom and recently losing my dad at my mom's age and [not affording] the medication…she actually grabbed me and hugged me and I mean, you could feel the love, you could feel the concern so I know. She's my candidate. She was my candidate before then but even more so because it's personal. Mine is personal so I know that she's going to be there for me,” she said. “I volunteered because I know that people are trying to make a difference but they need help. They can't do it alone.” 

Greg Middents is a retired judge from northern Texas. He drove 15 hours from his home to Waterloo, Iowa to volunteer for Hillary Clinton. He said part of the impetus to volunteer was to get back into politics and that he supported Clinton because they both had committed themselves to lives of public service. “I think [Hillary] has a good heart. She's always been involved in public service, caring for children, wanting women's issue to be the forefront and just caring about the average citizen. That's basically what I've always tried to do, and hopefully have,” he said. 

Greg Middents is a retired judge from northern Texas. He drove 15 hours from his home to Waterloo, Iowa to volunteer for Hillary Clinton. He said part of the impetus to volunteer was to get back into politics and that he supported Clinton because they both had committed themselves to lives of public service. “I think [Hillary] has a good heart. She's always been involved in public service, caring for children, wanting women's issue to be the forefront and just caring about the average citizen. That's basically what I've always tried to do, and hopefully have,” he said. 

Susan Vallem is a retired college professor and social worker, opened up her house to the Clinton campaign in nearby Waverly, Iowa so they didn’t have to rent an office. She said she supported Hillary because of her commitment to solving problems. “My sort of concept of social work is that you look at what the needs are. How do you bring people together, and how do you make something happen?” she said. “That's so what Hillary does, is to see a need, figure out who you have to bring along, and make something happen. Hillary fits my personality, my profession, as well as the whole political end of things that I think are important….That's what drives me to work really hard on her campaign, is because I believe she is the best person to make those good things happen.”

Susan Vallem is a retired college professor and social worker, opened up her house to the Clinton campaign in nearby Waverly, Iowa so they didn’t have to rent an office. She said she supported Hillary because of her commitment to solving problems. “My sort of concept of social work is that you look at what the needs are. How do you bring people together, and how do you make something happen?” she said. “That's so what Hillary does, is to see a need, figure out who you have to bring along, and make something happen. Hillary fits my personality, my profession, as well as the whole political end of things that I think are important….That's what drives me to work really hard on her campaign, is because I believe she is the best person to make those good things happen.”

Why Volunteers?

Volunteers have taken on an increasingly large role in campaigns and it's important to spend time with them and learn about their experiences. 

We now live in an environment that has become both increasingly saturated and segmented. People are exposed to thousands of messages that compete for their attention. People cannot consume all of these messages and often attempt to ignore them, especially advertisements. As such, it has become more difficult to communicate with voters through mass media as opposed to before the mid-1990s, when mass-media messages like TV ads, radio ads and mail were much more successful. In addition, recent social science data provides evidence for the claim that face-to-face communication is the most effective way of turning people out to vote and getting them to vote for a specific candidate. 

Campaigns understand the aforementioned phenomenon and now recruit volunteers to further the core needs of campaigns, convincing and turning out, in ways that mass-mediated communication like television, radio and mail used to achieve in the pre-1990s era. 

"The volunteers are the validators. They are the living commercials," said Gina Baldwin, an organizer with Hillary for Iowa. "What the volunteers make possible is a real person who they know who lives by them who is affected by things who can be a validator for the campaign. They have a relationship that no staff nor candidate can ever have with every single voter. They have validity to them. These are everyday people whose lives will be affected by the candidacy of the next president and who have something to say about it."

 

Thank You: 

Volunteers: Vikki Brown, Travis Shephard, Susan Vallem, Greg Middents, Houra Sadeghi, Bridget Saffold, Frantz Whitfield, Marvin Innes, Steven Fox
Thesis Committee: Steven King (chair), Daniel Kreiss, Ed O'Keefe
Campaign Staff: Gina Baldwin, Pavitra Abraham, the entire Hillary for Iowa team in Waterloo, IA, Chris Klarich, Tavis Hall, the entire Bernie for Iowa team in Waterloo, IA
Family: Jay, Patty and Sarah Whitehouse
Partner: Carolyn Van Houten
Advisors: Pat Davison, Lisa Krantz, Chad Stevens, Dustin Chambers, Ash Adams, Ross Taylor, Tegan Johnston, Heidi Hennick-Kaminski, Chad Stevens' Spring 2016 Narratives Class
Lodging and Moral Support: Grant Uding, Michael Zamora, Brian Powers, Bob Moore
Financial Support: UNC, Yunghi Kim, The Park Family
Logistics and Information: Jason Noble, Dave and Deb Nagle, Carl Busch at UV Films, Mark Morris at KXEL