Courting Students, And Hoping They'll Actually Cast Votes

In Iowa, some candidates are pushing for student part-time residents to caucus while others call foul-play. Dean Reynolds reports. Video by
By Jose Antonio Vargas and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

CEDAR FALLS, Iowa -- For months, Barack Obama has pursued Casey Turner. He has sent the 19-year-old University of Northern Iowa student letters, e-mails, phone calls and Facebook messages.

Turner's friends are pushing him to back the senator from Illinois, too, even getting him to join a Facebook group called "I pledge to caucus for Barack Obama on January 3rd."

Nonetheless, Turner is ambivalent about whether he will make it to the Democratic presidential caucuses next month.

"Some people are talking this election to death, but there's plenty of young people who aren't going to caucus," said Turner, a music major from Clinton, in the eastern part of the state. "It's not a priority right now. It should be. But, really, it's not."

Many of the presidential candidates have actively courted young voters, sending them text messages, visiting college campuses and launching Web sites that explain the complicated caucus process. The goal is not only to win over these voters but, just as critically, to get the ripe but unreliable group to turn up at caucus sites, perhaps hundreds of miles from their homes.

College students are among the most fervent supporters of Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.). Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) also have significant student followings -- Biden because of his record on Darfur, and Edwards as the anti-establishment populist in the Democratic race. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has sparked enthusiasm among women students drawn to her historic quest.

Among the Democratic and Republican front-runners, only former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee (R) does not have a specific program to reach out to student voters. Eric Woolson, who is running the campaign's Iowa operation, said, "I don't know if young voters are any different than any other voters."

Huckabee's campaign and the rest are aware, however, that student enthusiasm usually doesn't translate into student votes. Former Vermont governor Howard Dean was a big campus favorite in 2004, but that year, 18-to-24-year-olds amounted to less than 4 percent of Democratic caucusgoers.

The turnout was a huge disappointment to Gordon Fischer, who was chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party in 2004, and it left a scar. When he and his wife, Monica, were considering whether to endorse Obama, Fischer's first question to campaign officials was: "Is this a children's crusade? Are we counting on just young people to vote? If that's the case, I think that's problematic to say the least."

The Fischers' concerns were allayed when a senior campaign aide described students as "icing on the cake." Fischer has since become a key Obama adviser in Iowa.

The question of whether students will caucus has been complicated by the caucus date, Jan. 3, which falls in the middle of most universities' winter break.

"The reality is . . . students will have to either caucus at home or, if they're from Illinois or Minnesota or wherever, have to drive back to campus to caucus," said Tim Hagle, an associate professor of political science at the University of Iowa.

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