THE BLOG

Winter Break: Will The Jan.3 Iowa Caucus Threaten to Erode the Obama Youth Vote?

The following piece was produced by the Huffington Post's OffTheBus.

By Denise Wheeler and Alycia Dolan

With the Iowa caucuses finally scheduled for January 3, at a time when many college students will be on winter break, the major presidential campaigns -- especially that Of Barack Obama -- are scrambling to hang on to their youthful volunteers who now might be heading home instead of walking the precincts.

Locked into a statistical dead heat with rival Hillary Clinton in recent polls in the early-voting Hawkeye State, Obama's campaign has been banking heavily on college-age volunteers and organizers. At least 325,000 young people have signed on to Obama's support network on Facebook.com, for example, dwarfing the 19,000 members signed on to Clinton's network.

But the recent announcement by state officials that the Iowa Democratic caucus will be held precisely during the week when colleges and universities are shut down could put a serious dent in Obama's campaign ground offensive, as well as voter turn-out for the caucuses among the rapidly growing under 24-year-old demographic .

"It's certainly going to have an effect, I suspect, on the Obama vote," said Bruce Gronbeck, director of the University of Iowa Center for Media Studies and Political Culture. "He's the one who has packed the campuses. He's the one who had the 10,000-person Earth Day rally."

The January 3 caucus will also make it difficult for any political campaign that is relying on student organizers to drive older voters to the caucus sites, go door-knocking in the weeks before the caucuses, or win student-dominated precincts based on simple spill-over effects from younger Iowans' general enthusiasm for their candidate.

To counter this effect, student organizers for the Obama campaign have shifted into overdrive. Drew Garrison, vice president of Students for Barack Obama at Iowa State University, says only a stepped-up dual effort by both campus organizers and other campaign staff, working together would be "the most efficient way to combat the loss of votes."

Making sure that students show up to caucus in each of Iowa's 99 counties, however, is a much greater challenge than producing youth turnout in a few targeted college towns. Nearly a third of the University of Iowa's 30,000 students come from out of state, as do 20 percent of Iowa State's enrollment of 27,000. Although a majority of the out-of-state students live in neighboring states such as Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and Illinois, and many of whom are within a half a day's drive to Iowa, there's no guarantee they'll pull the plug on their winter break and make the trek back in time.

Additionally, caucusing at school during winter break is not an option for all students. Freshman who live in dorms many not be allowed back before the spring semester starts. At the University of Iowa, for example, only certain dorms are open during break; at many other schools, such as Drake University in Des Moines, none are open. Even though the majority of college students in Iowa are in-staters, those who live off campus can come back to caucus, but if they live in a dorm or out-of-state, they may be out of luck.

And it's precisely the youth vote that could make or break the chances of an insurgent candidate like Obama. In general, the majority of those who do show up for the often hours-long Iowa caucusing process are usually over the age of 55, according to veteran Iowa pollster Ann Selzer. And that already stacks the odds against Obama, says Steve McMahon, media advisor for Howard Dean in 2004. "Iowa is not exactly designed for a guy like Barack Obama or Howard Dean," says McMahon. "The voters tend to be older, less well educated, and less affluent generally than primary voters in larger states."

Adds Selzer: "Habitually, the younger people don't show. But anything could happen."

Still, student organizers are working hard on contingency plans to help boost student turnout. Networking programs are already in place, devised by student leaders who will each focus on a particular region during the break, to help coordinate canvassing efforts and to remind students where and when to vote. With over 400 branches throughout the United States, the national Students for Barack Obama (SFBO), the official student wing of the Obama campaign, is also redoubling efforts to help educate students about the caucus and election process.

Last week, the campaign set up a cook-out with sororities and fraternities at Iowa State, and next week a "Battle of the Bands" has been scheduled, the winner of which will open for Obama at a major fundraiser in Des Moines. Both events were financed and organized by the campaign, but students helped facilitate details and secure the dates, according to Garrison, who said it has been a joint effort throughout.

Since the minimum age to participate in the Iowa caucus is 17, the campaign is also focusing on high school students, dubbing them "Barack-Stars." Newly appointed Students for Obama chairwoman Ami ElShareif says students will make a huge difference in the caucus "if we are able to contact them and see who they are caucusing for."

University of Wisconsin Students for Obama has also joined the battle for Iowa. The group is planning to travel to Iowa this week as part of a regional "Canvas for Change" event which will likely involve students from Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin. ElShareif said UW has one of the five largest and most active Students for Obama groups, which will also use phone banks to target University of Iowa and Iowa State students urging them to to participate in the caucus in support of Obama.

But the month-long confusion and uncertainty that has surrounded the caucus date may have already discouraged a significant number of college-age voters. Some veteran observers speculate the end result will be a political windfall, scattering potentially thousands of young voters into virtually every area of the state, where they can advocate for their preferred candidate. But others fear that many of the students who have already registered to vote in the cities where their schools are located will be less likely to make the effort to caucus once they are home.

"It's one of those cases where we'll just have to wait and see," said Mark Lopez, research director for the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, a group that promotes political engagement of Americans between the ages of 15 and 25. A few Iowa colleges, such as Grinnel and Drake University, are making plans to re-open early so students can return in time for the caucuses. Iowa State University is considering a similar move.

Whether a youth vote for Obama, whatever its scope, will push him across the finish line in January is no easier to predict than whether the students who've pledged to return early actually will. Author and political analyst Todd Gitlin, a professor at Columbia University, noted that student support wasn't enough to elect candidates such as McCarthy in 1968 nor Dean in 2004. "There is often in these cases a rush of enthusiasm that doesn't get over the hump," he said.

Yet Obama supporter Vernon Jackson, a junior at the University of Iowa who is from Orlando, Fla., says he will return to school and stay with friends in order to vote, even if his dorm is closed.