Too Young to Vote, But Old Enough To Caucus in Iowa
By: Wall Street Journal
Obama Campaign Targets Turnout for 17-Year-Olds;
The ‘BarackStar’ Vibe
By ELIZABETH HOLMES
October 10, 2007
INDIANOLA, Iowa — A noisy crowd of thousands gathered in an open field here one Sunday recently, listening to rapper Kanye West’s “Stronger” blaring from speakers, and waiting for six Democratic presidential hopefuls to take the stage.
Lyse Perrigo, a suburban Des Moines high-school senior, had been here before. A few months ago, the 17-year-old stood in the same spot, rocking out to the music of Papa Roach and Saliva, two of her favorite bands.
This hot September afternoon was different in that Ms. Perrigo had another kind of rock star in her sights: Illinois Democratic Sen. Barack Obama.
Ms. Perrigo, wearing an “Obama ’08″ T-shirt with matching stickers and a button, is a crucial part of the Obama campaign’s plan to win the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus.
Ms. Perrigo, whose birthday is in April, will still be 17 when the January caucus takes place. But because of a quirk in Iowa election law, she’ll be able to participate anyway since she will have turned 18 by the November election. She doesn’t even need to be registered to vote ahead of time; she simply has to show up with proof that she’ll be eligible to cast a ballot come fall.
Residents, divided by party, go to their assigned precinct on the night of the caucus. Republicans treat the caucus like a straw poll, while Democrats gather and physically separate according to their candidate preference.
“Many of you can caucus in Iowa,” Mr. Obama told scores of high-school students, via conference call, from around the state last month for the kickoff of the weekly “BarackStar” nights held for teens at the campaign’s 31 field offices. “I hope you realize how much power you have, potentially, to change the world.”
After a recent foreign-policy speech, the candidate invited some of the attending teens and their friends backstage. Told that 17-year-old Anna Murray was student senate president of Iowa City’s West High School, he asked her advice on running for president. Ms. Murray, smiling broadly, was speechless. The next day she rushed up to her old government teacher, who is the student-senate adviser, to recount the tale.
The Obama campaign is also actively cultivating teachers, along with high-school principals, using them for entree to the youngest voters. Sometimes Obama aides try to hunt the adults down at home, begging for classroom time.
To be sure, teen interest doesn’t easily translate into teen votes. Young voters have notoriously low turnout rates, and the complicated Iowa caucuses make participating even more daunting. Seventeen-year-olds are particularly hard to get at because they aren’t listed on voter-registration rolls.
So most candidates aren’t paying attention to that youngest slice of the youth vote. Iowa high-school teachers and students say they’ve heard little from the other Democratic leaders, Hillary Clinton or John Edwards.
Mr. Obama is the exception, driven both by necessity, and his particular appeal. He trails far behind Mrs. Clinton nationally but is doing his best to keep up in Iowa — and polls suggest strength among voters under 30. He has a proverbial seat at the cool kids’ lunch table, with his appearance on the cover of Vibe and having met with the likes of rapper Ludacris. At 46, he’s the youngest of the presidential candidates, 14 years Mrs. Clinton’s junior. She will turn 60 this month. A few hundred extra teen votes in Iowa could make a big difference for Mr. Obama.
So Rachel Haltom-Irwin, the campaign’s 25-year-old Iowa Youth Vote director, attends many of Sen. Obama’s appearances, building the campaign’s email database. At a stop in the tiny town of Guthrie Center, she approached the student band and passed around a sign-up clipboard.
Under the heading of “BarackStars,” the field offices hold weekly gatherings tailored toward teens and hand out information packets to be distributed back at school. Ms. Perrigo posted some on her “Waukee Students for Obama ’08″ Facebook group site.
In Storm Lake, a picturesque town in northwestern Iowa, Sen. Obama’s team invited high-school teachers to bring students to a midweek event. The district accepted the invitation and provided a bus to transport 60 students. Craig Lyon, a Storm Lake social-studies teacher, says the field trip did more to interest his students in government than anything else that has happened this semester.
Brent Jorth, a teacher at Van Meter High School outside Des Moines, gave an Obama field organizer 45 minutes to speak to his American-government class. “Their ears prick up a little bit when they hear Obama’s name,” says Mr. Jorth.
Some of the most active students are at West High School in Iowa City, where they have formed their own support club for Mr. Obama — the only candidate to have an organized base there. Run by Elise Walz, a senior, and Jenna Broghamer, a junior, the club has 20 members and meets before school for half an hour every other week. They talk about volunteer opportunities with the campaign and events they want to hold (including a battle-of-the-bands-style mock caucus, called a “Maucus”).
Ms. Walz and Ms. Broghamer recently hopped one of many campaign-hired school buses to the Harkin Steak Fry in Indianola — an annual event sponsored by the state’s veteran Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin. In presidential campaign season, the event draws the top Democratic contenders.
As the bus approached Indianola, a town of more than 14,000 about 130 miles from Iowa City, the West High students peered out the windows at the rowdy campaign activity. “Iowans for Hillary” signs blanketing the roadside were the first they saw. Ms. Walz frowned. “Gosh, this place is so Hillary,” she said. “I wonder if Barack will feel bad with all these signs.”
The top six Democratic contenders spoke. In his remarks, Sen. Obama took a shot at President George Bush and his decision to commute the prison sentence of former White House aide I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. “Even Paris Hilton got some jail time,” he quipped.
At the Steak Fry, with a sprawling mix of campaign staffers and volunteers roaming around the open field, the rallying was in full swing. Ms. Walz and Ms. Broghamer readily joined in whenever they heard an Obama staffer start to cheer, but looked unsure when rival campaigns approached. Edwards supporters were handing out newspapers called “The Edwards Extra.” The girls stared at the ground and politely declined.
When the event was over, Ms. Walz picked up some discarded “Obama” signs from the campaign litter and dusted them off to take back to school.
On the bus ride home, she asked one of the campaign field organizers to explain the complicated caucus process to her. Dean Fluker, a recent University of Iowa graduate, did his best to do that. Democratic caucus participants need to do a lot more than just go to a private voting booth and cast a ballot. They have to show up in a crowded room and be prepared to defend their choice for the party nomination. Typically, seasoned caucus veterans run the show. But nearly everyone is expected to speak up.
Mr. Fluker told Ms. Walz, who pulled her voter-registration card out of her khaki Coach wallet, that they would have more tutorial opportunities close to the actual caucus date. Later, when asked whether she felt confident enough to take part, Ms. Walz thought for a second and said, “Uh, yeah. I think so.”
Such uncertainty remains a hurdle for the Obama teen outreach. On a visit to Carroll, a town in the northwestern part of the state, Sen. Obama packed the local rec-center auditorium. On stage, off to his left, sat Chandra Coull, a 17-year-old senior at Carroll High School, wearing white cut-off shorts and a brown sweater. Ms. Coull sat attentively through the program.
Afterward, she exhaled loudly and announced, “I am definitely voting for him!” She’ll turn 18 in April, making her eligible to participate in January. But when asked whether she would take part in the caucus, she said, “What’s that?”
Write to Elizabeth Holmes at email@example.com
* Content From the Wall Street Journal supplied by Elva Ramirez:
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