washingtonpost.com
Courting Students, And Hoping They'll Actually Cast Votes
Iowa Often Sees High Fervor, Low Turnout

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.

Iowa's public universities have said they will open their dorms to out-of-state students who want to return to caucus. About 21,000 students from other states attend the schools.

Many more Iowa students will be scattered around the state in their home towns, which could blunt their electoral impact. However, veteran caucus watchers suggest that, in certain areas, students could be a potent force.

"My theory is, it could have a massive impact because they could pull themselves and their family members to a candidate," said Steffen Schmidt, a veteran political scientist at Iowa State University. "It could have kind of an interesting positive impact. I call them caucus missionaries." But he added, "We're all guessing because it's never happened."

Schmidt noted that Paul, in particular, has attracted among students "an incomprehensible amount of passion. I've never seen anything like it before. You hear testimonials that are almost religious. Obama also has generated an amazing amount of student involvement. Clinton has the most enthusiasm among young women that I've ever seen."

Brandon Neil, for instance, the 21-year-old founder of UNI Students for Barack Obama, plans to caucus in his home town of Plainfield. He has promised to take his mother, Renee, who has never caucused before. He has given $10 to Obama -- his first political donation -- and persuaded his mom to give $25, a first for her, too.

Since announcing his candidacy in February, Obama has attracted a strong following among college and high school students. He has been the most "friended" Democratic candidate on MySpace and Facebook, sites popular among young voters -- so popular, in fact, that a Facebook group called Students for Barack Obama, created in July 2006 by Meredith Segal, a 21-year-old at Bowdoin College, became an official part of the campaign.

In Iowa, more than 60 colleges and high schools have chapters supporting Obama's candidacy. The one at the University of Northern Iowa is the school's largest candidate group by far, boasting more than 300 students. A core group of 30 has been meeting most Wednesdays to organize events since soon after classes started.

Some of the group's most involved students said they come from Republican families and were coaxed into switching parties by Obama's candidacy.

Lucy Fitzgerald, who wore a red shirt that read "Friends don't let friends vote Republican," said her mother supports Mitt Romney. And this out-of-state student, who grew up in a Minneapolis suburb, said she plans to drive 3 1/2 hours back to Cedar Falls for caucus night.

"I'm 20. As far as I can remember, having grown up in the Bush years, I've been jaded about politics. A lot of my friends feel that way, too," Fitzgerald said. "Now we have Obama, somebody who's saying, 'You can be involved, you can make a difference.' "

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company