College students in Iowa get a front-row seat to national politics

Tuesday night’s presidential debate took place at Drake University in Des Moines, less than three weeks out from the Iowa caucuses. Since late 2018, first-time voters and college students in Iowa have had some of the most access to the candidates than any other first-time voter base in the country.


Julia Shanahan, Politics Editor

DES MOINESFirst-time voters and college students in Iowa have had some of the most access to the presidential candidates than any other student body in the country. Twenty days out from the Iowa caucuses, the sixth Democratic presidential debate took place in Des Moines at Drake University, where candidates made their last pitch to Iowans.

For Drake sophomore Tanner Halleran, he has taken full advantage of the candidates’ stops around the university, organizing candidate visits and Democratic fundraisers on campus, even though he has not yet committed to a candidate. 

As one of the lucky students with a ticket to Tuesday night’s presidential debate, Halleran lined up outside the Drake University Bell Center three hours before the debate was scheduled to begin.  

“The accessibility is very different than what other students sometimes have the opportunity to do,” Halleran said. “Also to then come to that bigger picture, it really kind of puts into perspective how much power Iowa has, because they start the process.”

Halleran, 20, was elected as the Keokuk County Demcratic Party Chair at 17 years old — the youngest chair ever elected in Keokuk County. Halleran now serves on the State Central Committee as the second vice chair of the Iowa Democratic Party.

Halleran grew up in Sigourney, an Iowa town with a population of about 2,000 people, and said he became interested in politics at an early age.

“Growing up in a small town, the values instilled in me were, you know, leave it better than you found it, so I took that very seriously,” Halleran said.

Drake University political science Professor Rachel Caufield had a leading role in helping CNN and The Des Moines Register plan the debate on campus. Caufield has been a professor at the university for four caucus cycles and helped plan three other major network events prior to Tuesday night’s debate.

Caufield said 80 percent of the tickets to the Tuesday debate went out to students through a lottery system. She said it’s always fun to see students get involved in politics at the beginning of the nominating process, because she said students often underestimate the amount of political attention they’ll see on campus. 

“Candidates will come visit with [the students], and they might be interviewed by media,” Caufield said. “They run into candidates at coffee shops when they’re studying.”

Drake isn’t the only campus to have hosted presidential events. CNN hosted a series of town halls at Grinnell College in eastern Iowa. All three state schools have been subject to several on campus and college town visits by presidential hopefuls hoping to court young voters. At the University of Iowa, visiting guests must have facilities reserved by student groups, so campus organizations often serve as conduits to bring presidential candidates to speak.

Caufield said that students on campus have always shown political interest, and that some Drake students have gone on to be delegates at the national Democratic and Republican nominating conventions. 

But, she said this year she’s noticed students other than political science majors get involved with political student organizations and campaigns.

Kiley Roach, 22, is a senior at Drake, and is originally from Elburn, Illinois. She said she came to Iowa wanting to study political science and English. Having never experienced a caucus cycle, she had no idea what to expect on campus.

“My friend and I went into Mars Cafe in Des Moines to study after class, and we walked in and Kamala Harris was there, like with a camera crew behind her, and we didn’t get any studying done that day,” Roach said. “Sometimes it’s completely sprung on you whether you want to research it or not, and I think that’s something that’s really, really special.”

Roach was not pulled out of the lottery to attend Tuesday’s debate, but she said she has seen the candidates many times since early 2018. This year, she landed an internship with the American Association of Retired Persons in Iowa and traveled with 17 presidential candidates through the state in July during a series of AARP forums. 

Roach is planning to caucus but is currently undecided, and she said that having interacted with the candidates for the last year, she’s taking her decision very seriously.

“Even students at a college like Drake University, where it’s a pretty liberal school and a lot of people tend to lean left, there’s actually a really wide variety of ideological diversity here,” she said. “This race is a lot less decided than I think some people expect it to be, and I don’t think we’ll have a clear answer until caucus night.”

Not far from the Bell Center were debate watch parties hosted by student groups on campus. About 30 people gathered at Papa Keno’s Pizza in downtown Des Moines to watch the debate, and at the Olmstead Center on campus, Drake students for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, all gathered in separate rooms to cheer on their candidate or in Yang’s case, lament his absence.

Abby Rundquist, a junior at Drake University, is committed to caucus for Warren on Feb. 3. She said that being in Iowa, she feels like the country is looking at Iowa caucusgoers to set the tone of what the next four years are going to look like.

“It’s a lot of pressure, but it’s also very exciting to feel like your voice really matters and what you do is really going to count and affect not only America but the world as a whole,” Rundquist said at a Warren debate watch party.

Daily Iowan Creative Director Katina Zentz contributed to this report.