GRINNELL, Iowa — Austin Anderson was excited to see Beto O’Rourke on his college campus last week, intrigued by his “character” and talk of bipartisanship. But would he support the former Texas congressman in next year’s Iowa caucuses?
“It doesn’t feel like it’s at the top of the list,” the Iowa State University senior said. “I’m looking for a job right now. I’m, like, a dumb 21-year-old who worries about girls … and schoolwork. I don’t know, it feels extra at times.”
Anderson represents the challenge for O’Rourke and other 2020 Democratic presidential candidates who are making appeals to young voters a central part of their campaign. The White House hopefuls can soak up the energy of young crowds at campus rallies, but that doesn’t necessarily translate into support on Election Day.
Even when enthusiasm about an election is high, as it was during the 2018 midterms, young people often participate in lower rates than their older counterparts. Last year in Iowa, home to several competitive races, voters ages 18 to 24 made up 7 percent of the overall electorate, according to the Iowa secretary of state.
It can be even tougher to get young people to show up for a presidential caucus, which traditionally requires showing up at a site and supporting a candidate by standing in groups.
But some Democratic operatives believe a change to the caucus that would allow people to participate virtually could lead to record young voter turnout. So the 2020 Democratic contenders are showing up on Iowa’s campuses in search of every vote they can get.
Sen. Kamala Harris of California will hold a town hall Wednesday at the University of Iowa. Next week, her campaign will launch “Camp Kamala” — an organizing effort focused on training students and young Iowans to caucus and get their friends and neighbors to turn out — at five college campuses across the state.
O’Rourke has held town halls at 17 schools in six states since announcing his candidacy last month, including a handful of Iowa colleges just this past week.
Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey has hired three organizers from NextGen Iowa, the youth voter turnout group. He’s appeared at events hosted by college Democrats and is recruiting volunteers from at least 10 Iowa colleges and universities, with a more extensive youth turnout effort to come, according to campaign staff.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has appeared at student-focused events in Iowa as well, and her Iowa campaign already has more than 30 organizers embedded throughout the state, including in the major college towns of Ames, Iowa City and Cedar Falls. The campaign of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York touts that her first endorsement was from a 22-year-old University of Iowa student and that Gillibrand is planning to tour a community college and visit a handful of college campuses on her next visit to the state.
O’Rourke and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, are among the youngest candidates in the field, and hundreds of students showed up at O’Rourke’s rallies on the campuses of Iowa State and Grinnell College this past week.
And Sen. Bernie Sanders’ improbable 2016 success was driven in part by enthusiasm from young people, a fact the Vermont independent touts at his rallies.
But in nearly two dozen interviews at a handful of O’Rourke and Sanders events last week, it was clear that Iowa’s young voters aren’t a monolithic voting bloc. Candidates ranging from former Vice President Joe Biden to entrepreneur Andrew Yang came up as top picks.
Eli Shapiro, an 18-year-old Grinnell freshman, said he was a fan of Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota because she’s shown an ability to work across the aisle. He wasn’t impressed by O’Rourke.
“He’s soft like a cheesecake. When you ask him ‘What do you think about taxes?’ he’ll just give you the most generic answer,” he said.
Victoria Palma, a 19-year-old sophomore at Iowa State, said she was a big fan of Sanders’ in 2016 but was now looking at O’Rourke and Harris.
“There are just so many more options this time, as well as maybe there’s a reason why he didn’t make it last time,” she said.
For Mary Davega, another Grinnell sophomore, the way Biden handled the controversy surrounding his touchiness was a deal-breaker. She’s considering O’Rourke because of his authenticity.
“The hugging and the touchiness, I think, is not a problem, but he dealt with it wrong, and we cannot have another borderline misogynist person leading the country,” the 21-year-old Davega said.
But even if a candidate wins over students, he or she has another hurdle to overcome: getting young people to show up. Many don’t even know what caucusing is.
Abby Leonard, a 19-year-old Grinnell sophomore, said she’s been told “it’s a big thing on campus and that it’s really active and that people like to yell.”
Another Grinnell sophomore, Will Telingator, confused caucusing with canvassing.
“I assume it’s just kind of advocating for a candidate or going door to door trying to register people to vote,” the 19-year-old said.
Jake Drobnik, a 19-year-old Iowa State freshman, said it was “intimidating” to caucus because “you don’t know exactly what you’re getting into.”
“But I’m ready to Google it,” he said.