Four years ago, in the lead-up to the 2004 Iowa caucuses, Democratic candidate Howard Dean tried to label himself the ideal presidential candidate for students and the voice of young America.
Armed with proposals to reform college loan repayment processes and overhaul President Bush's No Child Left Behind education plan, Dean reached out to student voters in his campaign, visiting numerous college campuses in Iowa. Dean saw the youth vote as a critical step to securing the Democratic presidential nomination. But when the delegates were totaled, giving Dean a dismal fourth-place finish in the caucus, analysts pointed to a poor turnout from the 18- to 24-year-old demographic as the culprit for Dean's stunning failure.
In reality, young caucus-goers did turn out in large numbers for the '04 Iowa caucus - they just didn't caucus for Dean as expected. Instead, young people voted overwhelmingly for John Kerry, helping the Massachusetts senator clinch a convincing Iowa victory.
Dean's Iowa demise is still fresh in the minds of many candidates and their advisors, leading some to believe that the young voter demographic cannot be relied upon for a caucus victory.
Of the Democratic and Republican candidates, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) has most heavily courted young voters for tonight's caucus, with an Obama advisor telling Newsday that the campaign hoped to capture 80 percent of voters under the age of 21.
But even the Obama campaign has expressed doubts about the reliability of young voters. Gordon Fischer, an Obama advisor and former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, referred to young voters last month as the "icing on the cake," meaning that while they can't be relied on to swing an outcome, they're a nice bonus.
Jeff Frazee, national youth coordinator for Rep. Ron Paul's (R-Texas) campaign, disagreed with Fischer, saying he thought students could be relied upon for significant support in tonight's caucus.
He added that young voters will play an important role if Ron Paul is to do well tonight.
"We're doing our best to make sure students do show up to the caucus with our Students for Ron Paul chapters and our canvassing here in Iowa," Frazee said. "They are an important part of the equation, and we're counting on them to turn out."
Although a December poll by Harvard University's Institute of Politics showed that Rudy Giuliani led Republican candidates in support among 18- to 24-year-olds, a Giuliani campaign spokesman said the campaign was not specifically targeting young voters. Instead, he said it was taking a more holistic approach to generating support for the former New York mayor.
"We've been on college campuses with our Students for Rudy groups, but we really want support from all age groups, whether it's students or older people, because that's how you win an election," said Jarrod Agen, a Giuliani campaign spokesman.
William Woodman, a sociology professor at Iowa State who conducted a school-wide poll measuring the number of students who planned to caucus, said conventional wisdom and experiences from past caucuses suggest that students won't turn out in large numbers.
But Woodman's student caucus poll, conducted at the end of December, contradicted the perception of students as "elusive voters," with 58 percent of eligible student caucus-goers saying they planned to participate in the caucus.
With many students home for winter break, Woodman said students are more likely to participate because they aren't very busy.
"In some of these little towns, there isn't much going on, and the caucus is biggest ticket in town," Woodman said. "What do you think students will be doing that night?"
Alec Schierenbeck, president of the College Democrats of Iowa, said too many politicians nd pundits believe in what he called the "Howard Dean myth" - the belief that young voters are too unreliable to depend on in caucus or election settings.
Although different polls reported significantly different total percentages for the 18- to 29-year-old demographic turnout in 2004, Schierenbeck cited a Pew exit poll from that year's caucus that reported that 17 percent of all caucus-goers came from the 18- to 29-year-old demographic.
"The fact is young people did show up, but they broke decisively toward John Kerry," Schierenbeck said. "Young people have been amazingly important in the caucuses before, as we saw in 2004, helping Kerry to victory, and they're certainly going to be again in 2008."
In talking to students across Iowa, Schierenbeck said he's never seen students as excited for politics as they are for tonight's caucus.
"I wasn't here in 2004, but I can't imagine people were this tuned in and ready to caucus," Schierenbeck said. "Campaigns are paying such special attention to young people this cycle because they realize how important the young demographic is to winning the caucus."
In 2004, the Iowa caucuses took place during the school year, which meant the impact of student caucus-goers was softened because students were concentrated in fewer precincts throughout Iowa.
This time around, there's a greater chance that student caucus-goers, with many students home for winter break, could have a greater influence in more precincts throughout the state, especially in smaller precincts where students can more easily pull other caucus-goers with them.
"If the results of this caucus turn out very surprisingly," Woodman said. "It wouldn't surprise me if it was because of students."
© 2007 Michigan Daily via U-WIRE