As presidential candidates get ready for the Iowa Caucus on Monday, their campaigns are increasing efforts to reach out to college students, who experts say could play a critical role in the race.
For the first time since 2004, the caucus will take place when students are on campus rather than on break, Politico's Darren Samuelsohn notes. And with more than 120,000 students enrolled in the state's four-year colleges and universities, some candidates believe the student vote could give them a critical boost.
Paul a favorite among Republican students
On the Republican side, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has been the most focused on engaging students—some of whom are attracted to Paul's Libertarian views, such as his strong support of internet privacy. According to Samuelsohn, Paul's campaign has tried to capitalize on that enthusiasm with several tactics, such as hosting football tailgates, "Pints for Liberty" events at Iowa restaurants and bars, and on-campus events to sign up supporters.
At one recent event Paul's campaign manager, Chip Englander, rang a "Liberty Bell" every time an organizer signed up a new student supporter. "There are so many students and so few people that participate," Englander said. "It's all on you guys."
According to Paul's campaign, they signed up about 1,000 students just in the first week back on campus. Paul has scheduled events at Drake University, University of Northern Iowa, University of Dubuque, and several other schools in the week before the caucus.
Other Republican candidates are reaching out to students through policy. Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) have both released plans focused on higher education affordability and reform.
Democratic candidates locked in arms race for student votes
Competition for student voters is also heating up on the Democratic side. While surveys show Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) is currently the most popular candidate among students, Hillary Clinton and Martin O'Malley are working hard to limit Sanders' advantage.
For Clinton, that means bringing in new faces. Older Clinton voters associate the former secretary of state with the presidency of her husband, Bill Clinton, but many student voters were not alive when he was first elected. So Clinton's campaign has tapped Chelsea Clinton and actress Lena Dunham, among other young celebrities, to connect with student voters.
Comparing proposals for free college
Both Clinton and Sanders have been heavily promoting their plans to make college more affordable. Clinton's plan proposes "debt free" college, while Sanders goes a step further, proposing to eliminate tuition completely at public colleges and universities.
But O'Malley may have the most aggressive student outreach plan in Iowa. According to Samuelsohn, he has made more visits to Iowa's large college towns than any other Democrat. O'Malley is also holding events at smaller schools, like Cornell College in Mount Vernon, where he recently told students he was "hoping for a huge turnout among young people."
Will students turn out on Caucus night?
Despite all of these efforts, it's unclear whether young voters will participate in the time-intensive caucuses. Some observers are skeptical that college students will take a break from their studies and social lives to attend a caucus with strangers.
Trent Seubert, a University of Iowa senior who works on the Clinton Campaign, says he reminds fellow students that the entire country will be watching Iowa come Monday. "If that doesn't inspire them to go caucus, I don't know what will" (Wise/Lopez, Reuters, 1/26; Samuelsohn, Politico, 1/27).
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