Students have chance to impact Iowa Caucus

Alex Hanson

Every four years, Iowa becomes the hub of American politics with candidates swarming the state looking for support leading up to the first-in-the-nation votes for president.

With candidates flocking to the state en masse, college campuses become a popular spot for presidential hopefuls to meet a diverse group of potential first-time voters and win over a population who, if they turn out, can sway Iowa’s closely watched precinct caucuses.

Mack Shelley, university professor of political science, said he still remembers sitting in the Scheman Building during the 2008 caucus. Turnout seemed pretty standard, he recalled, but with about 10 minutes before the doors shut, a massive group of students poured in to caucus for then-Sen. Barack Obama.

“It was almost like an old western — the cavalry coming over the hill at the last minute to save whoever,” Shelley said. “That’s kind of the way it turned out. You can’t have a one-to-one connection of being a student and voting for Obama in 2008, but it was pretty obvious that’s what tipped the scale.”

A record 6.5 million people under the age of 30 turned out in the 2008 primaries and caucuses, and 8,800 young voters turned out for Obama in Iowa’s Caucus, according to The Center For Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. 

The Iowa Democratic Party does not release vote counts. Instead it releases how many delegates each candidate wins, but Obama easily won Iowa in 2008 with 37.6 percent. Sen. John Edwards squeaked by Sen. Hillary Clinton by just a few hundredths of a percent to take second place.

In 2012, grassroots support for libertarian-leaning Republican Rep. Ron Paul shot him into the “top tier” of candidates. He easily won the youth vote, according to estimates from CIRCLE, which projects 48 percent of young voters caucused for the Texas congressman. Former Sen. Rick Santorum was the closest competitor at 23 percent, while former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney brought in 14 percent.

Santorum edged Romney by just 34 votes to win the caucus when all of the votes were counted.

This election cycle, two candidates have stood out on college campuses and attracted potential voters to get involved in their campaigns.

On the Democratic side, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — technically an independent in Congress who calls himself a democratic socialist — has appealed to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Rosie Cook, freshman in pre-business who runs Students for Bernie at Iowa State, said she became interested in politics when se was getting involved in gay rights activism in high school. Leading the pro-Sanders group at Iowa State is the first official group she has taken part in.

“I see myself predominately as an activist, and I thought [Sanders’] views aligned with mine more and the kind of work I wanted to do,” Cook said.

Cook said this election is very poignant and has the potential to change the direction of U.S. policy. She encouraged students to get involved in any way, adding that getting involved in a group helps students become more aware and informed about issues.

“Become involved now, in any way, or in any group,” Cook said. “You become more educated on the issues around you, and you can effect any level of change, even if it’s small, and how these issues affect you in your everyday life.”

Polling from USA Today and Suffolk University released Dec. 8 showed Sanders with a positive favorability rating among younger voters aged 18-34 in the poll. That group viewed him more positively by six points while overall he is viewed negatively by three points among all voters.

What is the most obvious way Sanders appeals to young students? Touting his plan to provide free college tuition at public universities.

“Bernie Sanders, and even Hillary Clinton to some extent, are appealing directly to students on the grounds of free tuition or reduced tuition,” Shelley said. “Bernie is really trying to appeal to students with that, and I think that works with parents, as well. I think that’s appealing to parents just about as much as it would for students.”

For Republicans, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has made a push to reach out to young voters with his message of less government intrusion. His campaign also set a goal of recruiting 10,000 college students to caucus for the senator — a feat that would likely put him over the top by the end of caucus night — and Paul has established 400 “Students for Rand” chapters on campuses across the United States.

Austin Dzik, junior in mechanical engineering and president of Students for Rand at Iowa State, said he originally became interested in politics after watching Rand’s father, Ron, campaign in 2012.

The ISU group spawned off of Young Americans for Liberty, another student group that advocates fiscal conservatism with a push for civil liberties. Dzik was involved in the group during his sophomore year, and regional leaders for the group became involved in Paul’s campaign and asked him to start a group at Iowa State.

As for getting students involved, the group makes a push to talk to students every day and try to get them interested.

“We’re always out by the library just talking to students about issues and issues that matter to students,” Dzik said. “A lot of people don’t like our involvement in the Middle East and, for example, drug reform. So just talking to students and I’m always having conversations with people I meet about the group.”

And when it comes to students being able to make a difference on caucus night, Dzik wants to remind students just how much of an impact they could have if they all turned out.

“Students have a big opportunity to make a difference,” Dzik said. “There are over 100,000 students in Iowa, and, in the Republican caucus in 2012, just over 100,000 people voted. So say for example 10 percent of students voted for a candidate. That vote could really swing the numbers in a specific direction. I tell people, ‘Your vote really has an impact here.’”

As for policy, Paul stands out among Republicans for his take on civil liberties, often touting his filibuster over drones while in the Senate and pushing for government reforms on mass surveillance.

“He’s somewhat more attractive than a lot of other Republicans with his libertarian values,” Shelley said. “That tends to sit pretty well with younger folks to start with. He’s more inclined to say government shouldn’t have a big role in messing with your life.”

The Iowa Caucus is scheduled for Feb. 1. Unlike past years, this caucus will take place while classes are in session, which, Shelley said, has a chance to increase turnout. The last caucus was just two days after New Year’s Day.

Students must be registered to vote, and they can change their voter registration address if they are originally out of state. Iowa also allows residents to register on caucus night with proof of identification and address.

“The way the caucuses are run, they are meant to be pretty open,” Shelley said. “You can show up on caucus night, register on the spot, become a Republican or a Democrat for a night, then be something else the next morning. And the way they are structured, they’re really designed to appeal to a younger audience — to get them to be the boots on the ground by knocking on doors, making phone calls and drumming up support for candidates.”