By Enrica Nicoli Aldini
IOWA CITY, Iowa – With Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders neck and neck in the Iowa polls, not much is being said or heard about the third Democratic candidate, Martin O’Malley. The Des Moines Register’s final poll Saturday night put his support as a meager 3 percent. Worse, 41 percent of caucus goers said they don’t even know enough to have an opinion.
O’Malley’s nomination seems the longest of long shots, but that did not stop two University of Iowa students from spending Friday afternoon walking 12 miles in sub-freezing temperatures, knocking on door after door in Iowa City.
“I think we’ll be surprised the night of the caucuses,” said Mitchell Dunn, chair of the Hawkeyes for O’Malley at the university, where he is a freshman. “The pollsters often don’t get to see the momentum for some candidates. We have a great group of supporters, and I think we’ll see a surprise on Monday.”
David Beech, a sophomore, said that while the media hasn’t helped the Maryland governor grab the spotlight, he believes the former Maryland governor will emerge strongly.
“One of the great things about Iowa,” he said, “is that you don’t always need media attention to do well.”
About a dozen University of Iowa students volunteer with Hawkeyes for O’Malley. The key was seeing the mild-mannered candidate in action.
“Actions, not words. That’s what his campaign is about,” Dunn said. The two teenage political science students, who just came of voting age, view O’Malley as the only Democratic candidate who has enacted progressive reforms.
“He has a progressive record of raising the minimum wage, increasing income equality and reforming criminal justice,” said Dunn, who first met O’Malley at a fundraiser in his Mississippi River home town of Davenport, Iowa, last year. “I was wary of committing early, but he spoke and I was, like, ‘This is it.’”
Dunn and Beech speak of O’Malley’s policies with confidence and command of the political lingo. “He’s the only candidate who has a plan for 100-percent renewable energy. That’s going to create millions of jobs,” said Dunn. “He believes in climate change and has a strong position on gun control.”
Age matters, too. Beech voiced concerns that Sanders, 74, and Clinton, 68, will be too old in eight years to carry on with efficacy what he called “the hardest job in the world.” At 53, O’Malley is voicing a younger generation’s perspective, Dunn said.
Dunn and Beech drew a comparison between O’Malley and President Barack Obama, who was 47 when he took office in 2009. They said growing up during the Obama presidency sparked their political interest and contributed to their decision to volunteer for O’Malley.
“I didn’t really know what was going on when Obama became president because I was too little,” said Beech. “But he’s definitely inspired me. I often watch YouTube videos of his speeches. He’s our generation’s JFK, our Democratic leader.”
For Dunn, O’Malley is showing the same genuineness and ability to connect to people that helped make Obama so successful, especially among young voters. This is why the two young “political junkies,” as Dunn and Beech called themselves, committed to him.
“He cares about people,” Dunn said. “He’s reasonable and personable.”
“He’s a uniter, not a divider,” Beech added.
O’Malley’s sister Bridget Hunter told Medill Reports that her younger brother is popular among young Americans because “he affords everyone an opportunity, and that’s resonating with young people.”
Linda Klein, a staging coordinator for the O’Malley campaign in Des Moines, said many students took days off from school and flew in from other states on their own nickel to help.
“One of the reasons I’m doing this is because their enthusiasm is contagious,” she said. “They care about the future of America.”
If Monday night’s caucuses don’t pan out for O’Malley, Dunn and Beech don’t know yet which other Democratic candidate they will turn to. Sanders, according to Beech, is “too extreme, too much us-versus-them, the lower class versus the billionaires.” Clinton, for her part, does not look like much of a uniter to him.
For now, Dunn and Beech’s mind is on Monday night, when they’ll both be precinct captains for O’Malley.
“The caucuses are one of the best parts of our democracy,” Beech said. “You have a chance to win, even without name recognition.”