Calendar Could Be Bernie Sanders' Secret Weapon

Colleges will be back in session this year when the Iowa caucuses hit.

ByABC News
January 17, 2016, 10:20 PM

-- The last time Democrats had a competitive primary, Iowans caucused almost a full month earlier than they will this time around: Jan. 3, 2008, versus Feb. 1, 2016.

Not only does it allow for more time on the trail, the new calendar means campaigns must account for colleges and universities that will be back in session when the caucuses hit. Students will likely caucus on or near their campuses instead in their hometowns, and that reality comes with some notable pros and cons.

On the one hand, college students concentrated back on campus can be easier to mobilize and put to work, making phone calls and knocking on doors. In addition, several campuses will serve as caucus locations, in theory making it easier for students to show up right at school.

Bernie Sanders, in particular, who is doing extremely well among young people, is counting on college students to turn out for him. Sanders was up an astonishing 29 percent over Clinton among voters younger than 45 (60-31percent), according to a recent CBS/New York Times poll.

“We’re organizing on, I think, 28 campuses now,” Sanders’ Iowa state director Robert Becker told ABC News. “We’re not just paying attention to the big ones, we’ve got little schools that we’ve got active organization on, and we’re also organizing not just students, but teachers administers and everyone else who lives there. We’re fine with the way it is.”

But the Iowa caucuses are not a straight up-and -own vote, but instead a labyrinth of math and percentages. It is not enough to win the popular vote.

Candidates need to win state delegates, and each precinct has a certain number of delegates up for grabs depending on population size and previous party engagement. In turn, each of those precinct delegates is worth a percent of a whole delegate on the state level. Sound complicated? It is.

The way the math plays out, a few more supporters in a rural area can go a long way. If there are two delegates up for grabs in a small precinct, a candidate only needs about 20 percent of the supporters to win one, or 50 percent of the pot. On the other hand, a delegate in a city might be worth three times more on the state level than a delegate from a small town.

How that all shakes out in terms of strategy depends on whom you ask. Becker, Sanders’ Iowa state director, acknowledged his campaign is working hard to get supporters out in rural areas, but he said believes a concentration of college students, who are organized and voting in precincts that are weighted more, will help the senator.

Norm Sterzenbach, former chairman of the Iowa State Democratic Party, argued the exact opposite.

“If I were able to choose, have it my own way, I’d probably rather have them spread around the state in their home precincts,” Sterzenbach said in an interview with ABC News.

“Statewide strategies do well. Campaigns who have been most attractive to students and that have really only been successful on college campuses, haven’t fared well statewide,” he continued.