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Getting out the college vote - when campuses are empty

Primary dates in N.H., Iowa will clash with breaks

(tom moore/getty images for the boston globe)
Email|Print| Text size + By Scott Helman
Globe Staff / December 7, 2007

DURHAM, N.H. - For a presidential campaign trying to mobilize young voters for the first-in-the-nation primary, University of New Hampshire students are typically sitting ducks. They congregate in dorms, dining halls, and the student union. They pack The Bagelry at lunchtime and sip coffee at Breaking New Grounds.

But not this year.

UNH students will soon disperse to decompress, see family, and nurse New Year's hangovers. When they return from winter break, the Jan. 8 primary will have come and gone, unlike elections past, when Granite State campuses were in session and buzzing with activity.

"That is definitely a concern, especially with a lot of out-of-state students being registered [to vote] elsewhere and because the New Hampshire vote is so important," said Christine Snively, a 22-year-old UNH graduate student and an organizer for Senator Hillary Clinton. "Our main focus is just making sure that Hillary stays in their minds."

The earliest-ever voting dates in New Hampshire and Iowa this campaign are posing unique strategic challenges for the Democratic candidates, who know the college vote could be decisive - especially if the races in the two states remain close and young voters participate in expected high numbers.

Republicans have support on campuses, too, but young voters tend to lean Democratic. And so Democratic candidates are active on campuses across Iowa and New Hampshire, which together are home to tens of thousands of college students. But nearly every school will be on holiday break for the caucus or primary. Dartmouth College, where classes resume a day before New Hampshire votes, is one of the few - if not the only - exceptions.

Some election specialists and campaign officials believe the early voting dates may lower turnout among college students, but the candidates are trying to counter that by using text messaging and social networking sites like Facebook to stay tethered to their supporters.

Senator Barack Obama, who did a two-day tour of Iowa colleges this week, is courting college students with an aggressiveness that is drawing criticism from rival campaigns.

His campaign is distributing thousands of fliers on Iowa and New Hampshire campuses encouraging out-of-state students to vote in the caucuses or primary, which election law permits in both states. At the University of Iowa alone, there are about 5,500 students from Obama's home state of Illinois next door.

Obama's New Hampshire fliers tell students that the campaign will drive students to town clerks so they can register to vote in New Hampshire.

"If you live in New Hampshire, including for school, you can vote in New Hampshire - it's your right!" the flier says.

A spokesman for Clinton, Obama's chief rival, suggested last week that he was "systematically trying to manipulate the Iowa caucuses with out-of-state people."

Obama, in turn, suggests his opponents are trying to disenfranchise young voters. "Don't let somebody tell you that you are not part of this process - because your future is at stake, and America's future is at stake," he said Tuesday at Grinnell College, according to the Associated Press.

The dispute over Obama's tactics reflects the tightness of the Democratic race and how pivotal the young vote could be next year.

Participation by young voters nationally surged from 2000 to 2004, and again in 2006, according to specialists. The 2004 election saw the third-highest turnout ever among 18- to 29-year-olds, after 1972 and 1992, said Karlo Marcelo, a research associate at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

The average Iowa caucusgoer is over 50, but data from the last two presidential elections suggest more young voters are participating. In 2000, Marcelo said, 17- to 29-year-olds represented 9 percent of Democratic caucusgoers. In 2004, he said, their share jumped to 17 percent.

"Young people will contribute to the primary process in ways that we've never seen," predicted Lauren Wolfe, a law student at the University of Detroit Mercy and the president of the College Democrats of America.

The Democratic campaigns clearly agree. They have established chapters at scores of colleges, devised sophisticated get-out-the-vote plans for students, unveiled proposals to make college more affordable, and regularly sent their candidates and surrogates to campuses and college towns.

But the campaigns' game plans for Iowa and New Hampshire are somewhat different.

In New Hampshire, campaigns plan to shuttle student supporters to the polls, ensure that Granite State natives vote in their hometowns, and provide absentee ballots to those from out-of-state. Brice Acree, a 20-year-old junior at Dartmouth, said he will return to campus before the primary to help former senator John Edwards by putting up fliers, registering freshmen who may not know they can vote, and organizing rides on primary day.

"What really speaks to me about John and his policies is poverty," Acree said. "I'm from a very small rural town in Kentucky and I don't have a lot of money. It's a struggle to be able to come to a college like Dartmouth and pay for it."

In Iowa, some colleges are opening dorms during the break for students who want to caucus near school. But many students from Iowa will be caucusing in their hometowns.

Obama's campaign believes that could give them an advantage, because his supporters will be fanned out across Iowa instead of crammed into a few caucuses in college towns. (Candidates win in Iowa by winning individual caucuses, not a statewide vote.)

"Is that harder to organize? Yes," said Gordon Fischer, a former state Democratic Party chairman and a volunteer adviser to Obama's campaign. "But this is the generation of cellphones, text messaging, checking their Facebook profile 10 times a day. . . . We can reach them all sort of different ways and will."

Alec Schierenbeck, president of the College and Young Democrats of Iowa and a junior at Grinnell College, said, "You know someone's going to check their Facebook inbox, but you don't know if they're going to be in their dorm room on a Wednesday night."

Some are skeptical of how much impact young voters will have. After Obama's campaign last month packed a Democratic Party dinner in Des Moines with young supporters, Mandy Grunwald, a top Clinton aide, raised eyebrows when she quipped, according to Politico, "Our people look like caucusgoers, and his people look like they are 18."

Obama's campaign insists that young voters will matter, but it won't overly rely on them.

"The nontraditional caucusgoers are important, but I look at it as icing on the cake," Fischer said. "We're not forgetting to bake the cake."

Scott Helman can be reached at shelman@globe.com.

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