UI student caucusgoers share candidate predictions

With little over a month before the Iowa caucuses, some low-polling campaigns are focusing on engaging youth voters to drive caucus night results.
Community members watch Vivek Ramaswamy speak at Reunion Brewery in Iowa City on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. Ramaswamy focused on policy about foreign relations with Israel throughout his speech.
Community members watch Vivek Ramaswamy speak at Reunion Brewery in Iowa City on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023. Ramaswamy focused on policy about foreign relations with Israel throughout his speech.
Isabella Tisdale

University of Iowa second-year student Logan Shearer sees himself throwing his support behind Ohio biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy for the Jan. 15 Iowa Republican caucuses.

The Republican voter is skeptical of Ramaswamy’s chances at winning the Iowa caucuses, let alone the Republican nomination for president, but he wants to support the candidate he aligns with.

Shearer is one of thousands of young, voting-age Iowans who are expected to participate in either the Republican or Democrat caucuses across the state come January. The Daily Iowan spoke to nearly 30 UI students in December about their plans to caucus, or not.

With little over a month until the caucuses, campaigns are ramping up their operations in the state, and targeting young voters — one of the largest voting blocs — is a priority for some low-polling campaigns as they eye the finish line.

Trump has a large lead in voter polls ahead of his seven current competitors, but some young voters are considering other candidates who have made efforts to cater their platforms to college students.

For the first time in years, Young Democratic voters won’t experience Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucus and will mail-in their vote for either U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, D-Minnesota, author Marianne Williamson, or front-runner President Joe Biden.

Low-polling candidates, like Ramaswamy, who polled at 4 percent in the December Des Moines Register/NBC News/Mediacom Iowa poll, and Texas pastor and businessman Ryan Binkley, who received 0 percent in the October Iowa poll, have appealed to young conservatives in Iowa on the campaign trail.

Ramaswamy has hosted his “Free Speech & Free Drinks” events in college towns across the state in efforts to garner college-age voters. In October, Ramaswamy kicked off the “college campus tour” after a crowded gathering at the Reunion Brewery in downtown Iowa City.

“They will tell us if you come to Iowa, don’t bother with events like this because people like this don’t go to the caucuses. We gotta prove them wrong,” Ramaswamy said at his Oct. 19 stop in Iowa City.

According to Tufts research on the 2020 Democratic caucuses, 8 percent of young people, 17-29 years old, caucused in Iowa. Republican data was not recorded.

Binkley has hinged his campaign on “starting a movement by getting onto college campuses” across Iowa. Binkley, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, visited all 99 Iowa counties — a feat dubbed “the full Grassley — and still has a full slate of campaign events in the state in the coming weeks.

“This is for the next generation,” Binkley said at an Iowa City campaign event in October.

Power of the youth vote in the caucuses

Historically, candidates who garner the youth vote in Iowa have done well in the caucuses, typically placing in the top three. Voters can only caucus with the party that they are registered with.

In 2020, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., received nearly half of the youth vote in the Democratic caucuses and won the state with the most votes, but was second to then-former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg in the delegate count.

In 2012, 48 percent of Iowa caucus-goers under 30 years old voted for then-Texas Rep. Ron Paul, who earned the most state delegates but came in third in the popular vote.

According to a February Brookings Institute report, voters currently 18-40 years old are slated to become the majority of the voting bloc by 2028 and are expected to expand to 60 percent of the vote by 2036.

Steffen Schmidt, an Iowa State University political science professor emeritus, said in a year rife with political tensions, the youth vote could make or break second-place candidates that trail behind the frontrunner, former President Donald Trump.

Trump currently holds an authoritative lead with 46 percent of the October Iowa Poll. DeSantis and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley each tied almost 30 points behind Trump at 16 percent.

“DeSantis needs a lift in support so if he can reach young voters and get them to attend the event it could stabilize his declining campaign,” Schmidt said in an email to The Daily Iowan. “Haley has been rising and I believe she will appeal especially to women Republicans to try and continue her momentum.”

In a November Iowa State University/Civiqs poll, Trump garnered 47 percent of poll respondents 18-29 years old, while DeSantis and Haley got 24 and 18 percent, respectively.

College voter interest lags

Despite the nation’s attention on Iowa as the caucuses approach, many local UI students say they have no interest in participating.

Gunther Sandersfeld, a UI second-year, said he chooses to stay out of politics at this point in his life.

“I don’t feel like it’s really worth my time,” Sandersfeld said. “At least for right now.”

Jake Ellis, a UI first-year, said he would vote for Trump right now as a registered Republican, but is an out-of-state student and won’t be caucusing.

“I think right now economically, we need to go more toward the right in terms of inflation, job placement, and whatnot,” he said.

Among the 29 students the DI interviewed for this article, over half said they would not be participating in the Iowa caucuses. They are among a national trend of young voters who are now choosing to tune out of politics.

A recent Harvard Institute of Politics Youth Poll found that the number of youth polled who plan on voting in 2024 decreased from 57 percent in 2020 to just 49 percent.

The same poll found that youth polled who identify as Republican were 10 percent less likely to vote in 2024 as compared to 2020.

John Della Volpe, Harvard’s Politics Institute polling director, said these results could be reversed with time and active engagement of the youth vote.

“They want evidence that democracy works, that the government can address our challenges, and that there’s a meaningful difference between the two parties,” Della Volpe said in a Dec. 5 news release.

In Iowa, 26 percent of eligible youth, aged 18-29, voted in the 2022 midterm election, compared to 34.7 percent that voted in the 2018 midterm, according to data from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at Tufts University in Massachusetts.

These efforts to drive engagement could help bump growing youth voter turnout in presidential elections. Youth participation was relatively active, but stagnant, in the last presidential election in Iowa at 55 percent, up from 50 percent in 2016, according to data from CIRCLE.

Student groups push voter engagement

Campus political groups hope to help entice political participation among students at the UI in the upcoming caucuses.

UI College Republicans have spent the semester promoting local campaign events, helping people register to vote, and have helped organize volunteers for caucus sites on campus.

Kyle Clare, a member of the UI College Republicans executive board, said the campus group has worked with Johnson County Republicans to garner interest in the caucuses.

Kiana Shevling-Major, the president of University Democrats at Iowa, said the campus organization is working with Johnson County Democrats to volunteer at in-person caucus meetings on Jan. 15 since the party’s caucus was moved to a mail-in presidential preference card earlier this year.

Nonpartisan voter engagement organizations, like Hawk the Vote, are also pushing for participation in the January caucuses through social media education campaigns.

Jaden Bartlett, the associate director of Hawk The Vote, said the student group is leveraging efforts to engage campus voters through social media due to the timing of the caucuses.

The in-person Republican caucuses will take place on Jan. 15, the day before the beginning of the spring semester, and will make it difficult to drive engagement.

“I think the elections process can be very convoluted, especially if you’re a new first year coming into campus for the first time and you’ve never voted before,” Bartlett said.

UI political science professor Tim Hagle said the open primaries typically held by political parties in the state can be important party-building activities. Usually, Independents and no-party voters will join the party to vote in the primary and stay.

Growing number of young voter Independents

Ameen Vahdat, a UI third-year, said he doesn’t completely fit in with Republicans or Democrats. Vahdat identifies as an Independent and finds himself leaning more to the left than the Democratic party.

Vahdat said he was looking at candidates like Cornel West, a progressive scholar and activist, who is running as an Independent. He said the majority of voters are tired of the two-party system.

“Because there is no viable third option that could beat either of those two [Trump and President Joe Biden] without a kind of bullcrap, vote splitting scenario,” Vahdat said. “Then that isn’t representing our democracy.”

The Harvard Youth Poll showed that 35 percent of young Americans identify as Democrats, 26 percent identify as Republicans, and 38 percent identify as Independents.

With the majority of the youth voting bloc identifying with no party, this can give parties important opportunities to expand their base, Hagle said.

“[Republicans and third parties] still need to get out there because there are going to be a number of younger voters that will support them as well,” Hagle said. “So, again, it’s that idea where if you get somebody that maybe starts as a Democrat or starts as a Republican, hopefully — from a party’s perspective — a person will stay that way.”

Shreya Reddy, Roxy Ekberg, Natalie Miller, and Grace Katzer contributed to this report.

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