High school kids get ready to caucus as Iowa looks to the youth vote

Engaged or apathetic? All eyes are on tens of thousands of young people in the state as the nomination process nears kickoff.
Image: Supporters attend a Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., presidential campaign event in Marshalltown, Iowa, on Jan. 12, 2020.
Supporters attend a campaign event of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., in Marshalltown, Iowa, on Jan. 12, 2020.Tamir Kalifa / NYT via Redux file

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By Maura Barrett and Priscilla Thompson

DES MOINES, Iowa — Kiki Levy has only the faintest memory of seeing then-candidate Barack Obama at a rally here just before the 2008 caucuses.

Then 5, she sat perched atop her father's shoulders listening to the senator from Illinois who would soon turn out an unexpectedly high number of young voters, almost doubling participation among that segment of the electorate from four years earlier.

Fast forward 12 years, Levy, 17, is preparing to caucus for the first time Feb. 3 — thanks to a new state law allowing minors to participate in a primary or caucus if they'll be 18 by the general election date.

"I'm kind of riding the line between whether to be practical or to make a statement," Levy told NBC News, sitting in her high school's library after her U.S. government class was dismissed.

She's one of nearly 5,000 newly registered 17-year-old potential caucusgoers, part of a larger push by the Iowa secretary of state's office to bolster youth participation in the Iowa caucuses. While youth voter registration isn't quite at the level it was in 2008, it’s up almost 25 percent over this time in 2016, according to the secretary of state’s registration data.

Of the roughly 238,000 people under 25 registered to caucus, about a quarter have registered as Democrats. That group of a little less than 60,000 people has been targeted by campaigns hoping to replicate Obama's success.

The Iowa Secretary of State's office conducts a youth straw poll among high schoolers of all ages across the state, which includes both Democrats and Republicans. While not everyone polled can caucus, it represents how the younger demographic is thinking. The latest poll released Monday showed that of nearly 26,000 high schoolers polled — Donald Trump lead strongly with more than 8,500 votes, while Andrew Yang followed with the next highest support with 3,680 votes. Bernie Sanders came in third, with 3,436 votes.

A new poll of young Iowans from CIRCLE-Tisch College and Suffolk University shows that 35 percent between 18 and 29 years old say they are "extremely likely" to caucus. According to the poll, 72 percent of young people in Iowa say they have been personally contacted and asked to support a candidate or a party.

"Barack Obama made it cool to be a part of politics in a way that hasn't been done before," said Norm Sterzenbach, a veteran Iowa political operative and the 2008 caucus director for the Iowa Democratic Party. He currently advises the campaign of Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., on caucusing.

"Part of it was his youth and his energy that attracted young people, beyond just the folks that had been involved in politics or young Democrats," Sterzenbach said.

According to entrance polls from the 2008 caucuses, young voters preferred Obama over the next closest competitor by about 4 to 1 — success attributed to his campaign's outreach to high school and college students.

Rachel Haltom-Irwin was the youth vote director for the Obama campaign in 2008, and she required organizers to reach out to local high school history classes to give presentations on the caucus process. In addition, when Obama was in town, the campaign would offer students meet-and-greet times with the senator. Obama also put in the work himself, phoning students just as he would high-dollar donors.

"I think the message we were sending in our action was more powerful," Haltom-Irwin said. "It was the message (to youth voters): 'You're included in this process and you have a place here.' And our actions spoke to that. We didn't just talk about student debt; we invited their voices in to talk about student debt so they could actually ask Sen. Obama his thoughts on it, and about the issues that matter to them."

"A lot of people think we're not actually informed or that we're just going with the crowd,” Samira Gado, 17, who will be caucusing with her family together for the first time, said. The Gado family, immigrants from Togo, recently became U.S. citizens.

"We see things, we absorb things and we learn things," Gado said. "We care about issues like climate change, minimum wage, things that are actually going to affect us in the future, or are affecting us now, even. I'm nervous and excited to caucus, because I haven't done it before but also, I want to have a voice in government policy."

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., drew support from 84 percent of younger voters in 2016, and the same demographic continued to turn out at rates higher than usual in 2018, despite it being a nonpresidential election year. This year, Sanders still leads when it comes to support from those under 35: His crowds are consistently more diverse in age than other candidates and in the latest DMR/CNN Iowa poll, Sanders has 36 percent support among youth voters, while Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., trails behind him with 20 percent support.

However, at a mock caucus for students at Drake University in Des Moines on Monday night — just a week before the actual caucus — Warren and former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, were the only viable candidates among almost 200 students.

NextGen Iowa is an organization dedicated to registering college-age voters and it's been on 10 college campuses across the state registering students to vote since August, as well as hosting mock caucuses and organizing events.

Brit Bender, the Iowa state director for NextGen, reiterated what many Democratic strategists emphasize is key to recruiting supporters: "Meeting voters where they're at. In this case, it’s college campuses."

"Students are interested in the people who are showing up to talk to talk to them and hear what they have to say, and treat them like the important building blocks that they are," Bender said.

Iowa Democrats are hoping recent cycles and this in-person organizing effort lead to even greater turnout in 2020, but students told NBC News they're mostly learning about the wide field of candidates mainly online or via text.

"Social media has involved youth in this whole process," Levy said. “I mean, everyday I see politicians on Twitter and Instagram, and so I think the role of social media has integrated what teens like and also politics."

Ella Deeny, 17, listed the social media platforms on which she's noticed campaign advertising: Snapchat, Tik Tok, YouTube. She plans to caucus for Buttigieg in Dubuque, although she couldn't put her finger on exactly why.

Sterzenbach thinks success for a candidate among young voters comes from the energy and hope a candidate provides, rather than placing importance on the age of the candidates themselves.

"It comes down to the concept of, 'We can do this!' It really is impactful, because it's hopeful, it's inspiring, it's empowering," Sterzenbach said. "You have to be the change that you want to see. If (the youth vote) sits it out, this is never gonna happen."

Levy and Gado, who credited YouTube ads and the campaigns' door-knocking efforts with how they learned about the candidates, participated in mock caucus exercises with their government class. But that's not a standard statewide.

"I’m 17, can 17-year-olds caucus?" Austin Lien asked while standing in line at a Waterloo brewery, waiting to take a photo with candidate Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur.

The senior at Cedar Falls high school said the caucus process isn't explained at his school. "It’s kind of one of those things you have to go out and do yourself," LIen said. "It makes it harder to grasp your mind around, you have to learn about it on your own, and then finally when you go out, it's like, 'What do I do now?'"

It's important to note that while there’s heavy focus on Iowans as the political experts who help decide who the nominee will be, overall turnout is relatively low compared to the overall registered population — in 2016, only 16 percent of Iowans caucused. Though more youth are involved than ever, the pocket of uninterested young voters still very much exists.

"I probably should caucus but I don’t follow politics at all," said Gage Harris, 21, as he sat with two friends eating lunch at Jethro’s BBQ in Ames.

On the opposite side of the wall at the restaurant, more than 400 people gathered to listen Klobuchar make her pitch. Harris and his friends preferred the barbeque. "I see all the ads everywhere but I just skip through them. We’re all studying aerospace engineering, I’m pretty swamped with school and everything, so I don’t have time to research the politicians."

"When is caucusing? I know it starts here in Iowa but I thought we still had a few months to go," Lucas Duffy, 20, one of the young men with Harris, asked.

Young voters told NBC News that while they are politically engaged, they think most of their peers won't caucus next week.

Steven Stammler, 30, a serverin Waterloo, said while he plans to caucus for Yang (and his second choice is Sanders), none of his friends or his peers plan to turn out.

"It’s scary," he said. "I usually tell them then if they don't plan on doing anything about it, then they can't complain about the situation we’re in."

"There's this fear that their voice doesn't matter or that their vote isn’t going to make a difference," Bashar Eid, 17, said in Des Moines. "You know, what's one vote in the matter of millions?"

Levy remains hopeful that the younger generation in Iowa will turn out and vote for change as the primary process progresses.

"I think that the youth vote will kind of determine how much the United States is willing to shift within party lines," Levy said, "and kind of see how invigorated the party will be, coming into the general election."