It was only 10:30 a.m., and already, we were too cold to move, let alone get out of our SUV to tailgate. We’d been parked outside Notre Dame’s football stadium in South Bend, Indiana, in the alumni lot for more than two and half hours, ahead of the university’s last home game of the year against Brigham Young. Normally, cars line up in the wee hours of the morning to claim the best tailgate spots, but today, the stadium parking lot was a ghost town, with only one other vehicle in sight.
“Don’t worry. The students will come. They usually don’t show up until around 11:30,” one of the event’s hosts told me.
“They’re probably still asleep,” Mark Gianfalla, the student who organized the event, said.
Outside our cozy vehicle, it was a chilly 28 degrees. Every so often, 36 mile an hour gusts of wind brought spurts of snow and blew over tents and tables. The DJ quickly abandoned his plan to spin beats outdoors, opting to play a boom box out the back hatch of his truck instead. It wasn’t looking good for Generation Opportunity’s anti-Obamacare tailgate party.
But, just as predicted, at 11:15 students started coming to the Generation Opportunity tents. They happily listened to the organization’s staff talk about its “Opt-Out of Obamacare” campaign and signed pledges to do just that on the group’s iPads before leaving with green and yellow Mardi Gras beads (“We try to cater to the area we’re going to,” Patrice Lee, outreach manager for the group, told me) and Opt-Out koozies, sunglasses and bottle openers. Along with the students came cases of Bud Light, bottles of Andre, jugs of Fireball Whiskey and handles of vodka, gin and rum. Generation Opportunity’s beer pong table was swiftly put to use.
At 11:30 the pizza arrived, drawing a group of 40 or so students to the tents, which encouraged Generation Opportunity to deploy one lucky staffer as its “Creepy Uncle Sam” mascot. After posing for pictures with the students already at the tailgate, Uncle Sam made his way up and down the aisles of cars, partying with any student who would have him. Soon, students from other tailgates were wandering over in search of pizza.
Two of them, Sarah and Shannon, who asked to be identified by only by first names, said they consider themselves Republicans, but hadn’t heard about the tailgate. A Generation Opportunity staffer with pizza “and was like, ‘We have two cars full of pizza, do you want some?’ And we’re like, ‘Sure, we’ll follow!’” said Shannon, who was familiar with the group’s Creepy Uncle Sam ads.
“The pizza’s a big plus,” Sarah added. “I mean I’m Republican, and my family’s Republican, and my grandpa is like, ‘Do you know anything about what’s going on?’ And I don’t because I haven’t kept up with anything. But whatever they’re [Generation Opportunity] doing, I’d be interested in learning more.”
The Notre Dame tailgate was the second of Generation Opportunity’s events aimed at college students, spreading the word that Obamacare is a lousy deal for the young. Two weekends before, the 501 (c)(4) non-profit hosted a similar party at the University of Miami during the Hurricanes’ homecoming game against Virginia Tech. That party drew national media attention after some of the more than 300 attendees tweeted videos and photos of themselves opting in to Generation Opportunity’s tailgate. The Notre Dame tailgate—which took place in temperatures vastly colder than Miami . . . and during a snowfall—drew substantially fewer, clocking in at just over 100 attendees. Students who helped organize the event were confident, however, that under warmer circumstances, their tailgate would have rivaled the University of Miami’s.
“If this was a sunny day, this would be packed. Everyone would have their Opt-Out stickers on,” said Matt Zepeda, a junior.
“The events that we’ve done at college campuses and college towns across the country have been enormously successful in getting young people interested in learning more about their healthcare options under Obamacare,” Generation Opportunity president Evan Feinberg, who was not at the event, told me over the phone afterward.
“We’ve found that without a doubt, our message that they can take control of their healthcare and choose to ‘opt-out’ of Obamacare and find a better deal for themselves by buying private insurance outside of Obamacare, that message has really resonated with them because they’re really worried about Obamacare,” he continued. “They don’t want to buy Obamacare.”
Zepeda and his friends Lane Bullock, a fellow junior, and Stephen Fox, a pre-med student, expressed the very concerns Feinberg outlined. “I think the free market should work out health care. I think it should be privatized. The government shouldn’t get involved,” Fox said. “Young people don’t need it—the majority that is—I mean we’re all healthy,” he said nodding in the direction of his friends.
“Also I feel like its being forced on you,” Zepeda said, following his friend’s lead. “No one should have to be forced to do it.”
In the first two months the state and federal healthcare reform marketplaces have been open, young adults have been signing up at a much slower rate than necessary to keep the exchanges afloat financially. As a result, groups like Enroll America, a 501 (c)(3) non-profit, have been traveling across the country trying to get more Millennials to sign up.
“Enroll America and the Obama administration are going to be spending tens of millions of dollars, including a lot of taxpayer money, trying to sell young people on a really bad deal for them,” Feinberg said. “And so throughout that time, while we don’t have the tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer money, we’re going to keep going with this grassroots campaign and tell the other side of the story.”
Although Enroll America doesn’t receive taxpayer money to target young people, other pro-Obamacare groups such as the Colorado Consumer Health Initiative—the group behind the now infamous “Brosurance ads”—do.
Feinberg admitted that holding Opt-Out events on college campuses would become more difficult now that football season is over, but he said the group is committed to running the campaign as long as Obamacare is an issue. “Certainly college football tailgates get harder and harder as the weather gets cold and other events will be difficult,” he said, “but we’re confident that our creative and entrepreneurial staff are going to continue to come up with ways to connect with young people, even as the weather gets cold.”
Francesca Chambers is editor of Red Alert Politics.