Can Young 'BarackStars' Rock the Vote?
Iowa City Barack Obama raised some eyebrows earlier this month when he skipped a Democratic debate in Iowa sponsored by the AARP and focused on senior issues. His campaign said the decision was in keeping with its policy of attending only Democratic National Committee-sponsored debates, but the move carried some risks given that older voters tend to turn out at disproportionately high rates in the Iowa caucuses.
Making Young Voters Count
A recent memo from Barack Obama's campaign manager took aim at a familiar part of the Iowa landscape -- a straw man. To explain away any apparent deficit his candidate faces in Iowa, David Plouffe declares that polls are inaccurate gauges of the status of the race for the Democratic nomination, because they consistently underestimate the "strength of Barack's support among younger voters." Read more on young voters..
It is clear, though, that Obama's Iowa campaign believes it can more than make up for any potentially snubbed seniors with a vigorous effort among the state's younger voters, who it believes are an ideal target for a youthful candidate with a message of generational change. The campaign is not only targeting the state's college campuses (Obama visited the University of Iowa Wednesday) but also has a program aimed at high school students, dubbed "BarackStars" -- Iowa election rules allow anyone to vote in the caucus who will be 18 by the time of the general election, which means that many high school seniors are eligible to caucus. After giving a foreign policy speech outside Iowa City to a crowd of more than 1,000 Tuesday night, Obama stayed afterward to have a private meeting with about 90 area high school students to encourage them to drum up support among classmates.
But there are limits to the youth strategy. Under Democratic caucus rules, each of the state's roughly 2,000 precincts carries a predetermined number of delegates, which are then apportioned based on the share of support each candidate receives in the precinct. That means that a candidate does not necessarily benefit much from running up big totals in a given precinct -- a hard truth encountered by other candidates who sought to score big in the college towns of Ames and Iowa City, including Bill Bradley in 2000 and Howard Dean in 2004.
Then there is the calendar. The caucus date is still up in the air, but the pressures of other states' primaries being moved earlier is likely going to push it into the first week of January, if not earlier. That means that most college students are going to be at home on winter break or off traveling -- Iowa State's spring semester starts Jan. 14 (the date the caucus was scheduled for before other states started moving their primaries up) and the University of Iowa's starts on Jan. 22. Students from Iowa could caucus in their hometowns, which would disperse college support across the state so that it counted more for candidates. But it would deprive candidates of the potential votes of the many students who live out of state, who are allowed to vote in the caucus -- roughly 35 percent of the University of Iowa's 30,000 students come from out of state, as do 30 percent of Iowa State's 26,000 students. (Much of this out of state influx comes from Obama's hometown of Chicago, as suggested by the sea of Cubs caps and T-shirts in evidence at Obama's University of Iowa event Wednesday.)
Then there is the matter of relying on a demographic contingent that is notoriously fickle when it comes to political engagement -- particularly when it comes to the caucus, which requires an hour or two attendance on a weekday evening, not just a quick 10 or 15 minutes at the polls. At the University of Iowa event, which drew several hundred students, one student, Des Moines native Alyssa Peters, said she was definitely going to go to the caucus to support Obama. "When I heard him the first time, I had goosebumps," said the senior art major.
But others in attendance were less enthusiastic. Scott Erickson, a 19-year-old freshman from Wisconsin, said he probably wouldn't participate in the caucus even if he was in Iowa City when it took place. "I'm not that big into politics. It's not a priority right now," said the sports medicine major, adding that he knew of only one big Obama fan in his dorm, a student who "watches a lot of C-SPAN."
So why was Erickson attending the Obama event in the first place? "Our rhetoric class teacher wanted us to come," he said.
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