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Iowa Caucuses Could Hinge On Energized Young Voters

Members of Hawk the Vote, a nonpartisan group to increase youth turnout in the 2020 elections and Iowa caucuses at the University of Iowa hold a Q&A session about the upcoming caucuses in Iowa City. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)
Members of Hawk the Vote, a nonpartisan group to increase youth turnout in the 2020 elections and Iowa caucuses at the University of Iowa hold a Q&A session about the upcoming caucuses in Iowa City. (Chris Bentley/Here & Now)

Before the morning bell at Iowa City High School, eight members of the Caucus Club are gathered around a row of desks to plan their final push to get out the vote.

Anyone eligible to vote in November can caucus Monday night, even if they haven’t turned 18 yet. The Caucus Club hopes all of them will.

The high schoolers share tips for getting their classmates involved, like using QR codes to drive first-time caucusgoers right to a voter registration page on their phones.

“It’s really important that young people are registered to vote right now, because the youth turnout is really what’s going to make a difference for the issues that young people care about,” says senior Mira Bohannan Kumar. “That’s really our mission: to make sure that people are engaged, educated and able to participate in the political process.”

Young voters in Iowa propelled Bernie Sanders to a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic caucus. This year, Sanders is fighting with other candidates for that demographic and banking on record turnout among young voters to help put him over the top.

Caucus Club member Daphne Knoop says she’s nervous about her first time caucusing.

“I’m intimidated because I’m afraid of crowds and I don’t do a lot of political speaking,” she says. “This is like the first activism I’ve done really. I’m really scared, but it’ll happen.”

Knoop says she’ll face those fears to support Pete Buttigieg, the youngest candidate in the race.

Maria Buri is still deciding between Buttigieg, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. But she’ll definitely caucus, and she thinks many of her classmates will too — even if they aren’t as engaged with politics.

“At City High, I’ve felt there’s a pretty big shift in the amount of people who are just talking about political issues that affect them day-to-day,” Buri says. “With gun violence, school shootings, climate change, I just think there’s always something that really affects them and that they really do care about.”

Those issues are also resonating a few miles away at the University of Iowa, where there are more than 33,000 students. Johnson County also has a higher percentage of active registered Democrats than any other county in Iowa, making it a focal point for Democratic campaigns looking to turn out young voters.

“The sense I’m getting is that there’s really a culture shift in young people and they’re excited about voting,” says Jocelyn Roof, executive director of Hawk the Vote, a non-partisan student group trying to boost turnout among young people.

Her group is holding a mock caucus on campus to “demystify” caucusing, which can be a confusing process, especially for first-time voters. Young people typically vote at lower rates than older generations, but the 2018 midterm elections saw an increase in youth turnout in Iowa, according to state election data.

“I think there will be huge lines, long waits and crowded rooms,” says Roof, a junior studying political science and sociology.

Young voters are a critical demographic for any Democratic candidate hoping to win this year’s crowded caucuses, says Courtney Juelich, a PhD candidate at the University of Iowa studying young voters.

“Young people can definitely swing this election,” she says. “We’ve seen that happen with [former President] Obama’s surprising win out in 2008 in the caucuses here in Iowa, and then again with Bernie Sanders almost virtually tying Clinton which was also very unexpected, and those were motivated by the youth turning out and voting for these specific candidates.”

Johnson County was one of Sanders’ best showings in the state in 2016, and his campaign hopes to replicate that success in 2020.

As the sun goes down over a snow-covered campus a few days before the caucuses, volunteers for the Sanders campaign dial away in a phone banking session in the University of Iowa student union. They’re trying to mobilize voters who may have expressed support for the candidate on social media or to a campaign volunteer, but haven’t yet committed to caucusing.

The volunteers emphasize Sanders’ proposal to cancel student debt, as well as his plans for health care and the environment — three issues that polls show young voters rank highly.

Four of the five latest polls out of Iowa show Sanders leading the field, including an Emerson College poll released Sunday that cites “overwhelming support among young voters” as the “key to Sanders’s lead.” Emerson found 45% of 18 to 49 year-olds support Sanders, compared to 15% for Buttigieg and 14% for Warren.

“Young voters feel a lot of pressure because this feels like our last chance,” says Zoe Swinton, president of the student group Hawks for Bernie. “But this is something we need and we need it right now. We can’t have another four years with no change.”

Sanders won more than 80% of Iowa caucusgoers between the ages of 18 and 29 in 2016, but this time his campaign has more competition.

At a town hall event for Joe Biden at the University of Iowa last week, 20-year-old Madison Burk said she is leaning toward caucusing for the former vice president.

“For me personally I think that experience in office is huge, so I think that Biden’s a great candidate because he has that experience,” she says. “That makes me feel safe.”

Burk says she is also considering Warren and Andrew Yang.

A few seats down at the same Biden event, 27-year-old Van Yaeger’s candidate of choice is clear from his “MATH” hat to his Yang2020 sweatpants. He says he came from Florida to volunteer for Yang, and says he’s been canvassing voters around Johnson County.

“When we tell them, ‘Yeah there’s a caucus coming up, there’s a guy who wants to give you $1,000 a month,’ their eyes light up and they’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll do that,’” Yaeger says. “Hopefully we can shock some people here in Iowa.”

Yang got more votes than any other Democratic candidate in this year’s Iowa Youth Straw Poll, a statewide survey of more than 27,000 young voters released last week.

The critical question for any campaign relying on young voters is whether they will actually show up Monday night. Candice Crutcher, Iowa City field organizer for NextGen America, says a new voter ID law passed in Iowa last year could be a barrier for some students to vote. Her group is petitioning the university to add an expiration date to the school ID so it meets the law’s requirements. The university has also issued temporary IDs for previous elections.

Crutcher, 23, says she hopes to see a high turnout among young people tonight.

“I’ve talked to a couple professors who say they’re canceling class to let their students go caucus,” she says. “A lot of students I’ve talked to have said they’re just not going to go to class.”

A CIRCLE-Tisch College and Suffolk University poll released last month found 35% of Iowa voters ages 18 to 29 say they are “extremely likely” to caucus. If that holds true it would be a historic year for youth turnout in Iowa — and one where young voters could make or break a Democratic candidate’s campaign in what polls show is still a tight race.

“I think the student vote is going to come out because right now students aren’t happy with how America is being perceived internationally,” Joseph Verry, a biomedical engineering student who volunteers with Hawk the Vote.

“There are so many candidates,” he says, “and that provides young people the opportunity to find the person that represents their voice the best.”

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