Kids in Iowa get involved in the 2020 presidential campaigns

By Ellen O’Brien
Medill Reports

Kathleen McKean stood in the back corner of a Joe Biden campaign event, listening to the former vice president’s stump speech. At McKean’s feet, her two young children alternated between scribbling with crayons on “Go Joe!” coloring sheets and playing iPad games.

For McKean and her husband, Ryan, if both of them wanted to see a candidate on a Saturday morning, it meant bringing their two boys along.

“This is what it’s like to be a kid in Iowa,” McKean said. “Growing up in Iowa is the place to be for politics.”

Long before they can vote, children raised in Iowa possess a unique opportunity for unfettered access to presidential candidates. The candidates themselves welcome the presence of children on the campaign trail, often answering questions from children and teens during town hall sessions.

At a Saturday afternoon rally, Sen. Elizabeth Warren responded to a question posed by a young student on healthcare. The following day, a 10-year-old girl asked Pete Buttigieg a question about college affordability, signing her written question “from the class of 2028.”

Many of the children attending these events are years away from casting their first vote in an election. However, attending campaign events and the caucuses with their parents may increase the likelihood that they will vote in the future.

Forming a habit of talking about politics, going to campaign events and voting can instill in children the feeling that civic participation is an obligation, rather than a choice, Perri Klass, a professor of journalism and pediatrics at New York University, wrote in a piece for The New York Times.

Whether or not these children will match their parents’ political preferences is unknown. A 2018 Vox article cited a study conducted by political scientists Christopher Ojedaa and Peter Hatemia, which found children are more likely to share the political views of their parents when they feel bonded with their parents. According to the study, the frequency of political discussions in the home had no significant impact.

While waiting to enter a Warren event, two friends, Jennifer Adrian and Gina Rogers, snacked on chocolate chip cookies from the local co-op with their elementary school-aged daughters, Hannah and Willa. The girls danced around in line as they waited for their chance to enter the gymnasium, handing the half-eaten cookies to their mothers for safekeeping as they twirled.

Rogers said her daughter, Willa, has supported Warren since the launch of her campaign last February. She planned to bring Willa to caucus with her.

“When people ask Willa why she’s a Warren supporter, I want her to be able to articulate that reason a little bit more than just ‘she’s a woman,’” Rogers said. “I want her to hear from [Warren] and see who she is.”

Nearing the entrance to the high school gymnasium, the two girls raced ahead of their mothers. Their breakaway did not last long, as a young Warren volunteer called them back to wait by the entrance doors.

At a rally for Buttigieg, Illinois resident Julian Balboa stood in a crowd of his classmates from West Leyden High School, raising a “Pete for America” sign amidst claps and cheers for the former South Bend mayor. Although Balboa is not eligible to vote in the 2020 general election, he said he finds ways to get involved in national politics.

Balboa chose to come to Iowa with his school as part of a class field trip, which he referred to as a “political retreat.” Balboa was not even enrolled in the 12th-grade class that organized the trip, but he said it was important for him to come and see the candidates up close.

“I know a lot of people who say, ‘My parents like this candidate, so I’m going to vote for them,’ which is very closed-minded,” he said. “I’m lucky to have the chance to interact with different candidates and venture out of that reality on this trip.”

For Iowa native Jennifer Adrian, the motivation to involve her daughter in politics stems from her own regret at not participating in the caucuses until 2008.

“This election is going to impact them and their lives,” Adrian said. “If I can model being politically engaged, I’m hoping they will be more politically engaged themselves.”

Photo at top: A young boy awaits the arrival of Joe Biden at a campaign event in North Liberty, Iowa. (Christian Surtz/MEDILL)