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Iowa students could sway caucuses, if they show up

  • Story Highlights
  • Democratic presidential candidates seeking student vote
  • Sen. Barack Obama, in particular, is banking on student voters
  • Out-of-state students can register to vote in Iowa
  • Iowa caucuses on January 3 occurs during many colleges' winter break
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By Sasha Johnson
CNN Washington Bureau
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Des Moines, Iowa (CNN) -- For college students, winter break is a time for vegging out and relying on mom and dad to do the laundry.

But in Iowa, Democratic presidential campaigns are crossing their fingers that this bloc of voters can snap out of vacation lethargy and drag themselves to the caucuses on January 3.

Iowa election laws allow out-of-state students attending college there to vote, and 17-year-olds can vote in the caucuses as long as they are 18 years old by election day.

With a recent CNN/Opinion Research Poll showing a three-way tie in Iowa's Democratic race between Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois and former Sen. John Edwards, campaigns are trying to draw new voters.

While all three candidates have worked to generate support and excitement on campuses, the Obama campaign is committing a lot of time and energy on trying to pull out college students across the state, hoping its candidate's inspirational style and message of hope resonates with young voters. Video Watch how Obama is trying to woo the student vote »

But counting on younger voters can be a tenuous proposition.

"They're not a particularly reliable voting bloc and haven't been in the past. That doesn't mean you can't get them out, but it's a lot of work," said Drake University political science professor Arthur Sanders.

In the 2004 Iowa Democratic caucuses, only 17 percent of all caucus-goers were between the ages of 17 and 29, and the majority of that age group was made up of people over the age of 22.

If one compares those figures to the fact that more than 65 percent of caucus-goers that year were over 45 years old, it's easy to understand why courting the traditional Iowa caucus attendee can prove more successful than relying on college-age voters.

The 2008 caucus date throws a whole new logistical wrinkle in the quest to get young voters out on the evening of January 3.

The date falls two days after New Year's Day, meaning an untold number of students registered to vote in Iowa will be on winter break and not on campus.

"They're no longer going to be centrally located and easy to contact and stay in touch with and keep involved," Sanders said of college voters.

Sanders said campaigns might be able to motivate students to attend their local caucuses, but admitted it is a daunting task.

"If you can manage to do that and get a substantial portion to do so, it could be beneficial," Sanders said.

Josh Mahoney, a junior at University of Northern Iowa, is a prime example of the logistics conundrum facing both voters and campaigns.

He plans to caucus for Obama but will be spending his holidays at home, out of state.

Mahoney talked about his plans for caucus day when he introduced Obama at a rally in Cedar Falls, Iowa, earlier this month.

"I'm going to drive 4 hours from Sioux Falls, South Dakota, in my Toyota Camry 1993 model. It's terrible and I'm embarrassed, but I'm going to come all the way down here and I'm going to caucus," he told a crowd of students.

For Mahoney and others who have to travel a distance, a spell of bad weather could make it difficult to get out and caucus, something aides to several campaigns conceded was already keeping them up at night.

In an effort to keep tabs on students, the Obama campaign has spent the better part of this year collecting student supporters' cell phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

The Edwards campaign has an organizer assigned to every college campus in Iowa who is in charge of keeping contact with students to make sure they either caucus in their home precincts or back at school.

Despite all the warning signs in the data and anecdotes from past campaigns, some young voters involved in this campaign claim 2008 could vindicate their age group and prove they are serious about participating in the electoral process.

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Kris Hasstedt is a 22-year-old Clinton precinct captain and senior at Iowa State in his hometown of Ames. He said there is a different energy among his peers this election cycle.

"I remember the 2004 election, and it seemed like I was a needle in a haystack when it came to young people getting out to vote," Hasstedt said. "But I work at one of the grocery stores here which is mainly college students and a lot of them, every time I go in, there's a buzz about the candidates who they're supporting, where they're going to caucus ... it's a big wake-up call from 2004." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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