Monday, December 31, 2007

"Student volunteers descend on Iowa" (with slideshow)

Politically engaged college students are forgoing their coveted winter breaks to brave the frigid terrain of Iowa.Young people enthusiastic about their candidate, or in some cases just the democratic process generally, are descending on Iowa in droves to volunteer and observe.
Some, obviously, are directly volunteering for candidates. Others are students at Iowa colleges who grew up out of state and are coming back just to caucus. And a few are there to learn about the process.

All campaigns are welcoming volunteers. Some, like the John Edwards campaign, have made volunteering a simple matter of signing up online. But Barack Obama’s campaign was so deluged with out-of-state volunteers that they have decided to limit the number who may come.

One Obama supporter who did not make the cut was Rachel Lauter, 23, of Brooklyn, New York. Lauter is active in Brooklyn for Barack, a coalition of Obama supporters in the borough.

The group had arranged to travel to Iowa to volunteer in the weeks leading up to the caucuses through Obama’s New York office. But, on the day Lauter was planning to buy her plane ticket, they were told that Iowa had more than enough volunteers already. Instead, they were encouraged to focus their energies on the Northeast and, in particular, on New Hampshire.

While many Obama-supporting Brooklynites are already planning to go to New Hampshire, Lauter is waiting to see how the caucuses go for Obama before deciding if she will go there herself.

One young woman, who is able to volunteer in Iowa, even though she is lukewarm on the candidate she will work for, is Elizabeth Bennett, 21, senior at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. Bennett will be volunteering for Mike Huckabee.

Bennett, who also volunteered for President Bush’s re-election campaign in 2004, says that she has been following the election closely. But, she says, “I haven’t found one candidate to be passionate about. I think a lot of Republicans have felt that way.”

However when she saw that the Vanderbilt office of active citizenship and service was offering a road trip to Iowa for the caucuses, she thought, “what an amazing opportunity.” The bus will leave on New Year's Day at 12:01 am, and arrive in Des Moines around noon after the long haul from Tennessee. Each of the 60 students who signed up will then volunteer for a campaign until caucus night, when the group will watch a caucus en masse.

Bennett chose to volunteer for Huckabee, even though she is not entirely sold on him herself, because he shares her socially conservative views.

To prepare for the trip the group held a mock caucus on campus on December 5th, which Bennett said was “very true to form,” because the Clinton and Obama supporters argued about health care.

Closer to caucus day the college towns of Iowa will see a return of many college students who grew up out of state and went home for the holidays. Colleges with large out-of-state populations, like Iowa State University and Grinnell College, will make some facilities available for students to stay in on caucus night. Other students, who live off campus, will come back to their apartments.

Alec Schierenbeck, 20, a junior at Grinnell who is president of the Iowa College Democrats, is predicting a strong student turnout at Grinnell. He says 150 students have signed up to spend caucus night in the gymnasium, and he knows several students who live off-campus who plan to caucus as well.

On the other hand, not all indicators are so positive. Young Voter PAC, a Democratic youth voter-mobilization organization, has offered transportation subsidies to Iowa college students from out of state who want to caucus for the Democrats but for whom the cost might be an issue. Young Voter PAC has put up ads on Facebook, Google ads and the Des Moines Register website, in addition to blasting a list of 58,000 18-35-year-old registered Democrats in Iowa with text messages and emails.

Jane Fleming Kleeb, Young Voter PAC’s executive director, said she was disappointed that very few students took them up on their offer at first. But, noting college students’ famous tendency to procrastinate, she said it is encouraging that most of the 84 applications have come in since Friday, suggesting that many more may soon follow.

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