The Iowa X Factor: Millennial Turnout

(Photo: Jae C. Hong/AP)

There’s one big question that looms over the Democratic presidential contest now that the Iowa Caucus day is here: Will young people turn out? The answer will likely determine which Democrat wins the state. Bernie Sanders has an 11-point advantage over Hillary Clinton among Democrats under 35 and to win, he must leverage that.

"My prediction is that if tomorrow night there is a large voter turnout we win," Sanders said yesterday at his field office in Marshalltown, Iowa. "On the other hand, if there is a low voter turnout, we'll probably lose."

Iowa’s Democratic caucus in 2008 turned the political establishment on its ear with an unprecedented turnout from voters between the ages of 17 and 29. That segment made up 22 percent of Iowa caucus, up five percentage points from 2004.

Iowa’s college-student populations are mostly concentrated on three campuses—Iowa State University in Ames, University of Iowa in Iowa City, and Drake University in Des Moines. Over the past few days, I’ve talked with Iowa college students who are active Democrats on their respective campuses.

The refrain resounding among them is a yearning for strong policies that address economic inequality, college affordability, climate change, and criminal-justice reform.

Drake University, a private college in the heart of Des Moines, has often found itself at the center of the Democratic race. It hosted a Democratic debate, along with a couple Democratic forums—including the Black & Brown Forum focusing on the concerns of Iowa’s minority communities. All three Democratic candidates have made a point of courting Drake students.

“There is a lot of Bernie support on campus. I think it’s largely due to the fact that he has a message that young people have been dying to hear for a while,” Brianna Steirer, who is president of Drake University Democrats, told me at a coffee shop just off campus. “We were born into an economy that’s not necessarily working for us and that frustration drives young voters. To hear a candidate recognize that as a main issue of our times is refreshing.” Steirer committed to caucus for Sanders last April.

Rather surprisingly, Steirer says that Martin O’Malley—who has struggled to garner much attention or polling support—has large levels of support around Drake. He recently tied Bernie Sanders for the number of delegates in a recent mock caucus held on campus. “He’s actually taking young people by storm here. He does it well,” Steirer says. O’Malley’s apparently charmed at a recent event at a college bar, where he drank beer and threw darts with Drake students.

Clinton has been pulling out the stops to garner support, too. She’s done events with celebrities, held youth rallies, and as Steirer puts it, “tried to incorporate younger vernacular into her professional outward appearance.” Still, Steirer is highly skeptical that she’ll get much support around Drake.

“I just think she’s just extremely out of touch with young voters,” she says. “[Clinton] has this air of hard-shell professionalism that I think a lot of Iowans are uncomfortable with, whereas you see O’Malley rolling up his sleeves and Bernie yelling at you.”

Clinton lost many parts of Des Moines to Obama back in 2008, and she’ll likely struggle in the area again.

About 45 minutes east of Des Moines is Grinnell College, long a bastion of progressive campus activism. Most students there are highly engaged in politics—and in 2008 they turned out in droves for Obama. This time around, Sanders looks primed to win.

“Grinnell is a kind of a weird progressive hub that’s pretty anti-establishment,” Anna Schierenbeck, a 19-year-old sophomore and member of the Grinnell College Democrats, told me. “I think that we were kind of positioned for Bernie in the first place. Hillary was fighting an uphill battle here at Grinnell.”

O’Malley, too, has drawn big crowds on campus and Schierenbeck says she wouldn’t be surprised if the former Maryland governor received strong support from the campus on Monday.

Up in Ames, home to Iowa State University’s nearly 30,000 undergrads, Sanders is surging, too. “Younger people around here from what I’ve seen are pretty overwhelmingly for Bernie,” says Alex Doser, president of the College Democrats group on campus and a 22-year-old senior. “Clinton has a lot of support from the old, reliable Democratic voters. The thing is going to be mobilizing young people to get out and get involved in the caucus.”

Nonetheless, some college students say that Clinton is doing just fine on campus. “I would say [Clinton and Sanders] are about evenly split,” says Zachary Rodgers, an active Iowa State Democrat and 20-year-old junior who has decided to caucus for Clinton. “One of the biggest things that really brought me to Hillary has been all her experience and seeing the work she’s been able to accomplish.”

In all likelihood, Sanders will carry the majority of college support but that won’t necessarily translate to a caucus win. For most college students, this is their first chance to participate in an Iowa presidential caucus—an infamously confusing process. On the Democratic side, it can even be especially daunting given the open-voting process that includes passionate attempts at persuading people to support a certain candidate.

College activists in Iowa know this and have made a point of making sure students know where caucus locations are and have held caucus-training events that teach students how to participate.

“If you’re thrown in on February 1 without any background, it’s terrifying. People are yelling and it’s crazy,” says Drake’s Steirer. A couple of weeks ago, she was skeptical whether many students would actually caucus. But when her group held an event to educate students about how to caucus, hundreds of students showed up. “I’m pretty optimistic about the campus after [that event].”

The second problem for Sanders is the over-concentration of his college support. Centered in three cities and in a correspondingly small number of precincts, it’s possible Sanders college support will be packed into a relative handful of caucuses.

This is the first Iowa caucus in several cycles where Iowa colleges are actually in session on caucus day, meaning many students who otherwise would have caucused in their hometowns are caucusing on campus instead. In 2008, Obama benefitted from that more dispersed youth support.

The older Democrats whom Clinton has targeted this year are dispersed far more evenly across the state. For that reason, some young Sanders supporters have said they will be going to their hometowns to caucus, but it’s unlikely that there will be enough to have any impact.

“For a lot of people here that live two or three hours away, going home on a Monday night is not a real possibility,” says Iowa State’s Doser.

There’s no denying the wave of enthusiasm for Sanders among young Iowans, but the dynamics of the caucus in this presidential cycle are not going to make an upset easy.

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