UPDATE: This story has been updated to note the campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders is active on the Iowa State campus.
“Hi, are you registered to vote in Ames?”
Students who have crossed Lincoln Way at the intersection with Lynn Avenue in the past week are probably familiar with this question now. Presidential campaigns began campaigning in Iowa in earnest in January, and though caucus night is still months away — canvassers have been covering the Iowa State campus to register students to vote every day since at least Aug. 19.
To reel in students, organizers have set up tables offering an array of campaign swag, including buttons, stickers and bumper stickers, among other things. The campaign of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand had a unique offering for passersby Monday — organizers offered free tie dye to students.
The campaigns of Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Cory Booker, Sen. Kamala Harris, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Gillibrand and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke — all seeking the Democratic presidential nomination — have been active on the Iowa State campus in August. All of those campaigns set up tables near the Memorial Union to register voters and try to convince potential caucusgoers to “commit to caucus” for their candidate.
Tyler Mardis, senior in public relations, started volunteering for the Warren campaign in May, and served as a fellow in her campaign the “entire summer." He said they want everyone to register to vote, regardless of whether they support Warren.
“Even if they don’t like Warren, we want them to be politically active, and hopefully they’ll see what we see and really be on board with her,” Mardis said. “Lots of people have been really supportive and open to Warren.”
Booker’s campaign said they interacted with hundreds of people in their organizing efforts around Iowa State, and the campaigns still active have plans to not only continue, but also ramp up their work to increase their margins among student voters as caucus night comes ever closer.
Mack Shelley, Iowa State professor and chair of the political science department, said candidates come to campus in part because student voter turnout is already so low — it’s even lower if they don’t know the candidates.
“People have to know who the candidates are in order to know who to vote for. Without the boots on the ground presence from the campaigns … turnout is even lower,” Shelley said.
Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign resulted in a near tie with former Sec. of State Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucuses in part because of the massive margins he received among student-aged caucusgoers.
In 2016, Sanders won a 60-40 victory over Clinton in Story County, receiving the votes of 86% of caucusgoers aged 17-24. However, Shelley said the younger people are, the less likely they are to turn out to vote.
“You wind up with a really unfortunate situation in which older generations have a built-in advantage,” Shelley said.
Madeline Sinovic, junior in political science, said she started volunteering in May, and got hired as an intern for the Warren campaign in June. Sinovic said people have been very receptive to volunteers greeting them at the street corner, adding she has talked to “hundreds of people” already.
“It’s so exciting to see the support already growing, and it’s only August, and so I just can’t even imagine where it’s gonna go throughout the school year,” Sinovic said.
Students with experience in party politics are getting involved in the campaign process too, and throwing their weight behind candidates.
Claire Carstens, sophomore in event management and the founder and former chair of the Youth Polk County Democrats, announced her endorsement of Gillibrand Monday in a guest post for Iowa Starting Line.
“Today, I will be at Iowa State University, where I am starting my sophomore year, and will join the Kirsten for Iowa team for a campus day of action. I am so excited to share with my classmates why Kirsten will be the best president for me and other young people across Iowa,” Carstens wrote.
Multiple presidential campaigns have plans for the candidates themselves to return to Ames in the coming weeks and months. During the spring 2019 semester candidates made more than a dozen visits to campus, and the number of candidate events is expected to increase as winter nears.
Not all students are interested in the campaigns, though. Some actively avoid walking near the campaign tables set up on Lincoln Way, while others are more creative in avoiding interactions with the campaign organizers.
“I’m planning on registering, but I’ve been walking around with headphones pretending I can’t hear [the campaign workers],” said Greg Lansing, sophomore in criminal justice studies. “Honestly, I just feel like it’s a political push to get those who aren’t interested in registering to vote for candidates based on popularity instead of the basis of the candidate’s platform.”
In the 2018 midterm election, turnout among “Gen Z” voters was the lowest of any age bloc. A Pew survey found only 30% of eligible Gen Z voters participated in the midterms. Turnout was 64% among “baby boomers.”
A Monmouth poll released Monday found an effective three way tie for the lead nationally, with Sanders and Warren both receiving the support of 20% of registered Democratic primary voters, and former Vice President Joe Biden with 19%. However, Sanders leads among voters under 50 by 8% and Biden leads among voters over 50 by 14%.