Amid aspirations and inspirations, young Iowa Democrats gear up for the caucuses

The Old Capitol Mall at the University of Iowa. Students on all Iowa campuses are expected to play a crucial role in the Feb. 1 caucuses.

By Enrica Nicoli Aldini

IOWA CITY, Iowa – When Hillary Clinton visited Grinnell College in  November, sophomore Anna Schierenbeck told her that when she was just eight years old, her dad suffered a stroke. It left him disabled. The family has been caring for him since.

Not even a month later, Clinton announced a plan to give tax credit to those caring for aging or disabled family members. “I thought, ‘Wow!’,” said Schierenbeck, amazed at what seemed more than just a coincidence. This is one of the anecdotes she used to describe how inspiring it has been for her to meet presidential candidates on her college campus this caucus season.

Schierenbeck is the director of communications for the College and Young Democrats of Iowa and for the past few weeks, she has been urging her fellow Grinnell students to vote in the Feb. 1 caucuses. Besides Clinton, Schierenbeck also met the other Democratic presidential candidates, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, when they visited her campus in central Iowa.

The opportunity for young voters to meet presidential candidates is unique to Iowa, said Cory Convington, associate professor of Political Science at the University of Iowa. “Every student has either taken pictures or shaken hands with candidates or knows someone who has,” he said.

“I know students who changed their mind based on who came to campus and answered their questions,” she said, adding that while she still has not decided whom she’ll caucus for on Feb. 1, she is “unbelievably excited” because she hails from New York, and her vote “has never mattered before.” “Inspiring” is the word she uses the most to describe both her political involvement with young college Democrats and her experience canvassing for the caucuses in Grinnell.

So does 18-year-old Jordan Pope, freshman at Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, and chair of the Iowa Democratic Party in Decatur County. “Hey, I’m county chair,” Pope said with a note of pride.

In that capacity, Pope is endorsing O’Malley for the nomination. “I’ve met him a few different times, and every time I get more inspired,” he said, adding that he believes O’Malley’s younger age compared to Clinton and Sanders is what makes him more “inspiring and engaging” among young voters.

This is why, according to Pope, the Maryland governor can still do well in the caucuses even though Clinton and Sanders are significantly outpolling him. Besides, Pope added, “you can never predict what’s going to happen with the caucus process in the Democratic Party,” where one person does not count as one vote.

Inspiration, for Pope, means “wanting to go out and do more.” “We live in a scary world,” he said, “and you kind of lose hope in the political system. Then you meet some great candidates, and you get inspired to make a change.”

The November elections will mark Schierenbeck’s and Pope’s first votes for a national office. They’re part of a generation that had just celebrated its first double-digit birthday when Barack Obama became president in 2008.

“I’m the poster child for this generation,” said Schierenbeck. “When I was 11 years old, I remember crying at Obama’s speech after his defeat in the New Hampshire primaries. That’s when I realized that politics matter to me. The Obama presidency has meant a lot to me.”

“We tend to be shaped by growing up under the Obama presidency,” said Austin Wadle, president of the College and Young Democrats of Iowa and Schierenbeck’s fellow sophomore at Grinnell. That means caring for a variety of issues that, according to Wadle and Schierenbeck, the Republican candidates are not addressing on the campaign trail.

Wadle, also a first-time voter this year, said his leadership position does not allow him to endorse any of the candidates in the Democratic ranks. However, he believes that “the party is blessed to have great candidates who reached out to college students and discussed issues that matter to them. They’re miles and miles ahead of Republican candidates who haven’t discussed any of the issues that matter to young voters.”

For Schierenbeck, the biggest issues for young voters are student debt, employment, climate change and criminal justice reform, with the recent Black Lives Matter movement born on social media. She sees her peers as leaning more toward Sanders when looking for comprehensive policies that would address their concerns.

“Senator Sanders is showing to be more left than Secretary Clinton on those issues, and that’s appealing to young people,” she said. “Bernie is showing candidness and honesty, and that’s refreshing for so many.”

Pete Giangreco, a Chicago political strategist and a 30-year veteran of the Iowa caucuses, said Sanders is dominating among first-time voters. If they all show up on Monday, they could have a large impact on the Democratic side, to the Vermont senator’s advantage. The results could resemble 2008, when the turnout hit an all-time record of around 238,000 people and pushed Barack Obama to victory over Clinton.

If the turnout were more like 2004, when roughly 125,000 voters with an average age of 65 showed up, Clinton would most likely win.

Wadle, Schierenbeck and Pope know very well that as a constituency, their peers can make or break the next Democratic nominee. And that’s why, besides being unanimously “excited for February 1,” the three are working hard to make sure their friends get out and vote.

“The Democratic Party has a unique process to the caucuses, so we’re making sure people feel comfortable with the procedure, know where the caucus locations are, what they need to bring, and that they’re registered to vote in Iowa,” said Wadle. “But most of all, we’re making sure they’re excited, because it’s a chance for young people to have a voice and be a presence in the party.”

That’s why politically-involved college students like her deserve spotlight, Schierenbeck said. “Seeing all these college kids taking 20 hours out of their week to canvass in negative temperatures is amazing.”

Pope, who will be operating out of his hometown of Albia on Monday, echoed the sentiment: “We have a great opportunity being Iowa students. We have a chance to be part of something historic by taking part in the caucuses.”


The Old Capitol Mall at the University of Iowa. Students on all Iowa campuses are expected to play a crucial role in the Feb. 1 caucuses. (Enrica Nicoli Aldini/MEDILL)