On the night before the Iowa caucus, the smartest, tallest kid in my European history class was pictured in full color on the front page of the New York Times website. Alec Schierenbeck and I attend Grinnell College, a nerdy liberal arts school smack in the middle of Iowa caucus country. And my classmate Schierenbeck, 20, president of the Iowa College Democrats, was now being hailed as the leader of what people are honestly calling the youth voter revolution.
“The prodigious turnout was breathtaking, and it eclipsed anything I heard predicted,” gushed Barack Obama strategist David Axelrod about young voter turnout.
There’s certainly some truth to the hype. Three times as many young people caucused in 2008 than in 2004. Most of them went for Obama, the 46-year-old African-American senator from Illinois who won Iowa with a commanding 38 percent; 57 percent of Obama’s votes were from people under 30.
The high turnout for Obama is a sign of how young people will show up to vote in election-altering numbers if there’s a candidate they feel it makes a difference to support. Some analysts contribute young peoples’ support for Obama to his “rock-star effect,” but students I talked to mostly got excited about his identity—the idea that the symbol of America to the world could be a mixed-race former community organizer.
“People in our generation who’ve come of age during the Bush administration and want the country to move in a new direction think he can get us there,” Schierenbeck says. “When Obama talks about politics, it doesn’t sound like politics is a fight between people who did and did not burn their draft cards in the ’60s.”
When the crowd thins out that night after the caucus results are in, I find myself next to Schierenbeck. While the rest of the Obama students around us are grinning and beginning to open bottles of wine, Schierenbeck is barely smiling. He’s honest to God misty-eyed. So I do what any good friend would do. I make fun of him. “Are you going to cry?!” I laugh. Schierenbeck looks over at me and replies, with no hint of irony or facetiousness or any of those other emotions at which we youths excel. Instead, his face is full of relief and hope and he says, very seriously, “It’s just so important.”
The next day, as the analysis begins, all sorts of newspapers begin calling Schierenbeck, who’s from Brooklyn actually, to ask, “How did this high youth turnout happen?” and “Will it happen again?” in New Hampshire—and in November.
Schierenbeck’s not surprised that the majority of Grinnell students (150 of them) who drove and flew hundreds of miles to caucus three weeks before school was even back in session made the trek for Obama. Not only is Obama a charismatic guy, Schierenbeck says, but Obama’s campaign best utilized those newfangled social-networking websites MySpace and Facebook—the best way to reach young potential voters.
“Am I supposed to reach students through the newspaper? Catch them at the six o’clock news?” Schierenbeck smiled sarcastically, “Knock on their door?” The most reliable way to reach anyone under 30 is via the internet.
As of January 5, the Support Obama Facebook group had 189,954 members, compared with 57,898 in Clinton’s and a mere 29,735 in Edwards’s. All of Obama’s nearly 200,000 members received campaign news, voting reminders, and access to information like Obama’s favorite music, which includes Stevie Wonder and the Fugees. These things make a difference.
But that doesn’t mean presidential candidates should run a Facebook-only campaign to snag the fickle youth vote. “By far,” Schierenbeck said, “the core of a get-out-the-vote campaign remains making personal contact with everyone that could vote.”
Indeed, when I stopped by the college gymnasium on caucus day, Schierenbeck was slaving away at traditional political grunt work. After having organized car pools, gas money, and housing for all students returning to caucus, he was now working the sign-in table for the caucusing students. Schierenbeck’s job seems anything but exciting. The New York Times’ famous face was wolfing down a McChicken sandwich as he checked to make sure every youth voter had their registration and their sleeping bag.
Alec Schierenbeck does not endorse any candidate in the Democratic primary.