With the Iowa Republican caucuses moved up to Jan. 3, and the Democratic contests possibly happening in the first week of January as well, Iowa students will have to brave the Midwestern winter right after the holidays to vote.
It is unclear how this will affect the outcome, but it almost certainly will impact Democratic candidates more than Republicans, because many more young people are likely to caucus as Democrats, according to polls that ask which party primary voters plan to participate in.
If an earlier caucus date depresses turnout among college students, that’s likely bad news for Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.), whose supporters in Iowa skew younger than those of former Sen. John Edwards. If the date disperses youth support throughout the state instead of concentrating it on campuses, however, it’s a potential boon to candidates with the strongest support among college students. So much so that Obama’s campaign — which runs especially strong among college students — will actually encourage college voters to caucus at home, regardless of the date.
Obama has built an apparent advantage among college students, according to national polls and interviews with Iowa students. Crowds of thousands greet his campaign stops on campus, and his Facebook groups are larger than those of his competitors.
Although most polls of likely Iowa caucus-goers do not offer age breakouts because of the small sample sizes, Obama enjoys much broader support among young college voters than noncollegiate youth in the national surveys. That’s reflected on the ground in Iowa, where even student organizers for Clinton and Edwards say that Obama draws the strongest support on their campuses.
If the Democratic caucuses are held in the first week of January, they will happen before any college in Iowa has returned from winter break. This makes Obama’s emphasis on college students a bigger gamble, with more risk and, potentially, more reward. If students are on campus during the caucuses, they are easier to mobilize — but their votes are then concentrated in those college-town precincts. In Iowa — where a candidate needs to hit a certain percentage threshold in every precinct — that devalues their votes. But in rural precincts, where many caucuses have only 60 or so participants, a few extra votes from college students who are on winter break can swing the outcome.
So, if students are home with their parents throughout the state and still vote in the caucuses, the payoff for Obama could actually be greater. “In fact it could be an advantage [for the Obama campaign] that the caucus happens during winter break because their votes are distributed around the state,” said Hans Riemer, Obama’s national youth vote director.
“An additional vote in a smaller precinct can be more valuable than an additional vote in a large precinct,” explained Obama’s Iowa communications director, Josh Earnest.
Thus, Obama campaign officials will encourage student supporters to caucus in their home precincts even if the caucus is held on Jan. 14, when some schools will be back in session. “Even if it was happening while they were in school, we’d try our best to get them back home,” said Riemer.
For John Edwards, who has strong support throughout Iowa but apparently lags behind Obama on college campuses, the calculation is precisely the opposite. His Iowa communications director, Dan Leistikow, says that the campaign will not try to get its student supporters to caucus in one place or another. But Kelsey Sloss, a University of Iowa junior who volunteers for the Edwards campaign, will caucus from her campus address in Iowa City regadless of the date. She says that her home precinct is already leaning toward Edwards, but Iowa City is Obama country — so her vote will add more value there.
Caucusing at school during winter break is not an option for all students. Like most upperclassmen, Sloss lives off campus and can stay at her apartment during breaks. But freshmen who live in dorms may 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.
This is especially important for students from out of state. Although the vast majority of college students in Iowa are in-staters, some college students who have signed up to support candidates hail from across the country. If they live off campus, they can come back to Iowa to caucus, but if they live in a dorm, they may be out of luck.
Officials with Clinton’s campaign say an earlier date will make no difference to her campaign. “It’s not going to change our approach,” said spokesman Isaac Baker.
But her student volunteers are working on contingency plans. Nikki Dziuban, a 19-year-old sophomore from the Chicago suburbs, is co-president of Students for Hillary at the University of Iowa. She says the original caucus date of Jan. 14 would boost student turnout because out-of-state students like her would be “more inclined to come back if it’s just a couple days earlier than if it’s right in the middle of break.” (Spring semester there begins Jan. 22.)
Other students say they don’t have a choice. Drake sophomore Maggie Abney will caucus at her parents’ precinct near Davenport because she does not have on-campus housing over winter break.
Yet the most enthusiastic student supporters from out of state say they are determined to find a way to caucus in Iowa. 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.
Lauren Del Boccio, a University of Iowa sophomore from Chicago, will also try to make the caucuses but said a Jan. 3 date “is too close to the holidays.” She added, “I have quite a few friends that may not caucus” if the date is moved up.
With so much confusion surrounding the already intimidating process of caucusing for the first time, student organizers in Iowa worry that their peers will become discouraged and disengaged. “If it was not during break, it would have a huge impact. A lot more people would turn out,” Dziuban said. “It really stinks, actually.”