Democratic candidates look for edge on Iowa's campuses

Democratic presidential candidates are organizing students across some of Iowa's biggest campuses in hopes that young voters will give them an edge in a crowded caucus field

ByAlexandra Jaffe Associated Press
September 10, 2019, 5:51 AM
Sean Hellar, 18, fills out a voter registration form provided by Sen. Kamala Harris campaign organizer Dani Marx, 25, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. Many 2020 Democratic presidential candidates want to turn dissatisfa
Sean Hellar, 18, fills out a voter registration form provided by Sen. Kamala Harris campaign organizer Dani Marx, 25, Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019, at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. Many 2020 Democratic presidential candidates want to turn dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump on Iowa’s campuses into votes on caucus night. The burst of organizing activity on Iowa campuses shows that Democrats believe the energy that gave Barack Obama a surprise victory in 2008 can be tapped again. (AP Photo/Alexandra Jaffe)
The Associated Press

DES MOINES, Iowa -- On a sunny Tuesday as the fall semester was beginning on Iowa State University's campus, volunteers for three presidential candidates set up tables, calling out to harried students as they made their way to the school's massive library.

Ryan Ford, a senior who's serving as one of Sen. Kamala Harris' campus leaders, was up at 7:30 that morning just to be ready. "I will wake up as early as it takes if it means getting rid of Donald Trump," he said.

Ford had ample company. Student volunteers for Harris, Bernie Sanders and former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke were there already making the hard sell — sometimes with candy as an enticement — to a constituency that could be key to success in a crowded caucus field: college students.

With so many Democratic candidates competing, and a fragmented vote a distinct possibility, many of the 2020 hopefuls are hoping to turn dissatisfaction with Trump on Iowa's campuses into votes on caucus night when small margins might mean the difference between going on to New Hampshire or getting out of the race.

Most of the history of young voters suggests it's a flawed strategy — 18- to 29-year-olds have far lower turnout rates than their older counterparts. But there is one powerful exception: In 2008, Barack Obama's successful courting of college students helped propel him to an upset caucus victory, and ultimately, the White House.

In this cycle, candidates think they have another edge: animosity toward Trump on issues like guns and climate change. In 2018, about 38% of registered Iowans between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in the midterm election — the highest turnout among that age group in any midterm election since 1990, according to the Iowa secretary of state.

The burst of organizing activity on campuses shows that Democrats believe that energy can be tapped again.

"It's a fractured primary field and locking up a key constituency or two might be enough to win the caucuses or place higher than pundits might've expected," said Ben LaBolt, a campaign spokesman for Obama in 2008 and 2012. "The path to victory for Obama in '08 was reliant on changing the caucus electorate — to reach younger voters and nontraditional voters."

It is not easy, particularly because caucus voters often have to trudge to their precincts on a cold winter night and stay for an extended period to understand the complicated rules and vote.

That's where students like Ford come in — he said he plans to spend "a couple dozen" hours a week organizing for the campaign on ISU's campus, and even more time when it gets closer to caucus night.

He's one of a student organizing corps spread out across a dozen campuses in Iowa for Harris. She also has paid organizers working on each campus, and launched over the summer "Camp Kamala," an in-person training program focused on getting students and young Iowans to caucus.

But Harris faces fierce competition for the youth vote, with every top-tier campaign in Iowa organizing heavily on campuses and making a pitch directly to young voters. In addition to Harris' organization, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has had organizers on 18 different campuses around the state; South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg's team is organizing on a dozen campuses across Iowa; and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' staff says he has students who have trained to volunteer for the campaign at nearly every campus in Iowa.

Sanders' success in attracting young voters in 2016 was part of what helped catapult him to a near-tie with Hillary Clinton in Iowa, and helped drive his unexpectedly strong candidacy. This cycle, his campaign just completed its own youth voter training camp, with 1,600 students going through six webinars to effectively learn how to be independent, volunteer organizers. Sanders himself just completed a two-day swing through the state's three public universities, which are located in three of its bluest counties, where he emphasized the power young voters could wield — if they get out and vote.

"The bad news is, your generation does not get out and vote to the level it should," Sanders said. "The truth is that if younger people in this country voted at the same level as people 65 and older, we could transform this country."

Both Sanders' and Harris' campaigns have started efforts focused specifically on high-school students as well, who are able to participate in the February caucuses if they turn 18 by the November general election.

Paul Tewes, Obama's Iowa state director in '08, said that was one of their key advantages that year.

"It was a focus from Day One. Any community we went into, we had a rule that 20-30 minutes before an event, then-Sen. Obama had a meeting or photo ops with local high school kids," he said.

Tewes noted this made a huge difference in smaller precincts, where 10-12 caucusgoers might typically show up, "but suddenly here comes some young, energetic student who has invited 8-10 of their friends and you've almost doubled the population of that caucus."

Buttigieg, as the youngest candidate in the field, has made the case for generational change central to his pitch to voters, and his campaign has deployed organizers to a dozen campuses. He's also running digital radio ads on Spotify and Pandora aimed at young people in Iowa.

New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker has hired three organizers from NextGen Iowa, the youth voter turnout group, and his campaign said they registered more than 400 students across 15 campuses during the first week of school. O'Rourke held campus organizing events across Iowa as well.

But the biggest challenge may simply be getting students to show up for a caucus, a process where voters display and defend their votes publicly and one that can seem complicated and opaque to first-time voters.

Somerle Rhiner, an Iowa State University freshman, said she's interested in the presidential election but "really hesitant" about caucusing.

"I don't know anybody that's ever caucused before. It's the pressure of not knowing what to expect," she said.

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