When Barack Obama won Iowa in 2008 and 2012, college students were a key part of his winning coalition, turning out at record rates. For Hillary Clinton to overcome Iowa’s Trump-trending voter base, she’ll need to at least come close to generating the same turnout among young students. She’ll also have to tamp down third party defections from young progressives who earlier backed Bernie Sanders.
Sanders himself is returning to Iowa for an extensive two-day swing today and tomorrow, hitting up each of the state’s three largest public universities. His task is to persuade holdout and skeptical voters, as well as motivate the remaining Democratic-leaning students who haven’t yet voted.
Many of the college students who will come out to see him may have already voted. Early voting is key in Iowa, and Democrats request satellite voting locations on college campuses every year to make casting a ballot as easy as possible for the sometimes-unreliable voting bloc. Massive GOTV efforts center around driving the Democratic-leaning students to polling places in their student unions, campus libraries and residence halls.
“I was worried that I would forget to vote on November 8th, and I feel really strongly about this election, so I figured I’d better get my vote in,” explained Drake University student Abi Grimmimger after casting her ballot at an early voting site in the student union two weeks ago.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign has courted students with on-the-ground organizing and a non-stop procession of surrogate speakers. They’ve sent dozens of actors, musicians, elected officials and famous athletes to college campuses to entice young people to show up to events, hear about Clinton and go vote.
The other key player in student turnout is NextGen Climate Action, whose Iowa operation has focused extensively on college campuses since the Iowa Caucus. They have organizers and campus fellows at 23 colleges and universities across the state. Their message on clean energy and climate change helps open up conversations with students on the issues, rather than the candidates, oftentimes making persuading young voters easier.
How Does Turnout Compare To 2012?
So are students turning out to vote early at the same rate they did in 2012? Overall, the numbers are mixed. Turnout is exceeding totals from four years ago at some campuses, while they’re behind at others. Over 17,000 college students statewide have already voted.
The most promising sign for Democrats lies at Iowa State University in Ames, where 3,327 came out to vote at the campus satellite voting locations this year versus 3,043 in 2012. And that 2012 total was with President Obama visiting the campus himself during early voting.
Several smaller private colleges are also doing well. Simpson College in Indianola saw 203 people at their voting location last Tuesday. The county auditor didn’t have the exact number from 2012, but recalled it being only a little over 100 then. In the years before, they had only upwards of 35 people vote early on campus. The auditor credited a more-engaged student body.
Grinnell College, the rather liberal school in Poweshiek County, had 660 during their one-day satellite voting opportunity on campus. Two days of early voting there yielded 695 votes in 2012. However, a large group of students came over from the campus on the first day of voting on September 29th, led by actor Sean Astin, who campaigned at many college campuses for Clinton. The county auditor estimated about 120 college students voted that day, so it’s likely Grinnell has seen about 100 more students vote early than in 2012.
Wartburg College in Waverly, a school of similar size to Simpson College, got 226 students out for their early vote day, which Democrats believe is an improvement from four years ago. The county auditor there didn’t have numbers for 2012.
Other campuses have seen a decrease. The University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls had 2,184 early voters on campus over eight days in 2012. That was boosted on the first day thanks to a visit from Michelle Obama. This year there were a few less locations on campus (though the ones they cut from 2012 only saw a few dozen students utilize them), and total turnout amounted to 1,556 this year.
Drake University’s turnout fell from 519 in 2012 to 323 this year. A slow-moving line may have caused complications last week, as some students waited 45 minutes to vote at the student union.
Cornell College hosted presidents on their early vote day this year and in 2012. Four years ago President Obama rallied students on the Mount Vernon campus, driving 433 students to their satellite voting location. Former President Bill Clinton visited this year; 299 voted.
Luther College in Decorah saw 481 people vote early on campus this year. The county auditor didn’t have the exact number for 2012, but believed around 700 turned out to vote early then.
The University of Iowa, the state’s largest school that often delivers a healthy margin for Democrats, is a complicated situation. Overall, Democrats believe the student turnout will come in just under 2012 numbers, a real success given earlier difficulties Clinton faced with millennial and progressive voters. The actual numbers on the surface are tricky to compare.
In 2012 the auditor’s office offered more satellite voting locations on campus. 3,080 early votes were cast at residence halls, Old Capitol Mall and the campus recreation center in 2012. This year 2,355 have voted at the Iowa Memorial Union, Peterson Dorm and the Old Capitol Mall. However, Democrats have been able to closely track how many actual students are turning out in their internal data, and are finding them going to other locations this year as well, including in large numbers to the Iowa City Public Library. Voting is also up by 250 people at the University of Iowa hospital, where many students chose to cast their ballot. And Democrats are also seeing more students vote in-person at the auditor’s office.
Long lines at the public library location slowed voting earlier on as well, and the location’s hours were extended this week to handle the influx of students. Democrats also hope Sanders’ appearance there today will drive more turnout today and on Election Day.
How Does That Bode For Hillary Clinton?
Democrats behind the scenes in Iowa are pleasantly encouraged by what they’re seeing in student turnout. Whether student voting would come anywhere near their 2008 or 2012 amounts was a serious concern early on, with the potential of many frustrated former Sanders supporters potentially sitting it out. However, intense interest in the 2016 campaign seems to be keeping young voters engaged.
“I thought a lot of people wouldn’t think their vote matter or would think both choices are bad,” observed Drake student Grimmimger. “But most people have really invested in their candidate. I think no matter what candidate they want to vote for, they have really strong feelings why they’re voting for them.”
NextGen state director Zack Davis says they’re seeing students defying the pessimism many thought they’d show this year, and are honing in on the key policy issues of the race in a way many other age groups are not.
“There’s an assumption there that they’re disengaged,” Davis explains. “When in reality they’re hyper-engaged. And they collect their news from all different sources as well as their peer groups. And they’re seeing where the candidates align on theses issues, those third party groups aren’t even there.”
Turnout, of course, is only one of the major factors for Clinton among the college crowd. How much she can win the college youth vote by is another. Keeping otherwise-progressive students from voting for Gary Johnson and Jill Stein is important. Both students and campaigns have seen a shift since the debates.
“Right now we’ve seen a pretty big growth in enthusiasm, especially over the last three weeks,” Davis says. “More and more are signing up for support of Hillary Clinton than we saw in September. So not only are we seeing young people getting excited about the election, but they’re also breaking toward Hillary in a significant way.”
And conversations on college campuses seem to confirm that movement. The amount of Sanders holdouts appear to have decreased significantly as young voters move on from their differences over Clinton and really consider the policy choices between the two major candidates.
“I caucused for Bernie Sanders, but for me Hillary Clinton was the next best choice,” said Sam Fathallah, a junior at Drake, immediately after voting for Clinton at the campus satellite voting site. “I come from a Muslim family, so Donald Trump’s Islamophobic rhetoric has really affected how I view not only Donald Trump, but the Republican Party … It came down to Hillary Clinton is a Democrat, party affiliation. I don’t agree with everything she’s saying, but if she’s in the executive position then Democratic senators and representatives are going to have an easier time getting things passed that are socially progressive.”
Closing Out The Campaign
While much of the push has been for early voting on campuses, Election Day still looms large. NextGen is planning a huge effort on the ground and with digital ads for the final five days.
“We are very aggressively having conversations about voting with students where they’re at, whether it’s online or offline,” Davis says.
In addition to the traditional canvassing of dorms and student housing, NextGen has put significant resources into digital organizing. They find students talking about the campaign on Twitter and interact with them, have a large peer-to-peer text messaging effort, do creative in-person stunts on campuses, are purchasing a special Snapchat filter and have a six-figure digital ad buy for online videos like this one with Aziz Ansari that will target 180,000 millennials in Iowa in the last days before the election.
“We’re hoping election officials are ready and prepared on Election Day for what will be significant student turnout in these precincts around the state,” Davis predicts.
by Pat Rynard