IOWA — As you push open the door to enter Grinnell College’s south loggia, the covered area connecting the dormitories on the college’s South Campus, posters of candidates crumple.
Iowa college students, like most everyone else in Iowa during the caucus, are typically surrounded with attention — and this year especially, student issues have been prominent for Democrats, with both top candidates including college affordability pushes in their policy platforms.
For those students, the weeks leading up to a caucus are full of candidate visits. At Grinnell, for the first time there was a week long “short course” before classes began where students traveled eight hours a day tracking candidates and speaking with lesser-known caucus affiliates. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–VT) visited Grinnell’s campus last Monday. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley held a town hall there two days later.
The liberal arts school of 1,600 students, of which University President Emerita Mary Sue Coleman is an alum, is known for its left leaning reputation; the campus has a big chapter of the College Democrats but no university recognized conservative counterpart.
Austin Wadle, Grinnell sophomore and president of the Grinnell College Campus Democrats, said the unique opportunity Iowan students have through candidates’ aggressive caucusing gives them a different perspective than other universities and, at times, the networking does have significant influence over their votes.
“There is a strong Martin O’Malley presence on campus, I think that’s largely because the organizer for him in this area is a Grinnell graduate,” Wadle said. “He graduated this past spring and jumped onto the campaign, so he has personal connections (on campus). That’s something you’ll hear about the caucuses a lot. It’s really based a lot on your own personal connections.”
An hour away at Drake University in Des Moines, O’Malley found support as well. Like students at Grinnell, junior Gabriela Edwards said she was drawn to O’Malley for personal reasons.
“I think I’m going to (caucus) for O’Malley. He’s not very popular so I’m trying to get as much support,” Edwards said. “I’m from Honduras, he’s done a lot of work in El Salvador so I like that about him, and he did that way before he was even (running for president).”
Based on the attendees at a rally on campus Sunday, Grinnell students felt favorable of Sanders, who placed second in Monday’s caucus by 0.3 percent. He drew a crowd of 1,280 students during his visit. Hillary Clinton, who won the caucus with 49.9 percent, made a stop at Grinnell in November, and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, campaigned for her on campus in January.
Despite the excited chatter among some College Campus Democrats before the caucusing began, in contrast O’Malley ended with 0.6 percent of the votes and dropped out of the race Monday evening.
Caucus poll results show students tended to lean more toward Sanders — CNN’s entrance polls indicated that 84 percent of 17- to 29-year-old, and 58 percent of 30- to 44-year-old voters said they were for Sanders, while 58 percent of 45 to 64-year-old voters and 69 percent of 65-and-older voters chose Clinton.
Regardless of the polls, though, for many Iowan students, their decision was not as clear cut as the statistics suggest. Drake senior Kendrick Dewdney said he would be alright with either leading Democratic candidate but, if forced to choose, preferred Sanders.
“I guess I’d be content with Hillary or Sanders,” Dewdney said, “but I think one thing Sanders has that’s very exciting is the breaking down the big banks into a kind of a more diffused power, and then also the cease in student loans in general is pretty appealing.”
Students across the state said they were enticed by Sander’s plans, but questioned the viability of them. Jaylin McClinton is a senior at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; though he cannot caucus in Iowa because he is not a resident of the state, he said he chose to come campaign for Clinton in Des Moines because he saw her plans as most feasible.
“I like Senator Sanders a lot as well, but I think for me, (Clinton) has some really very strong plans and I think that all of them can be implemented in our current political climate,” McClinton said. “She’s very strong on voting rights, she has a very solid criminal justice reform policy, and I think it would be great to see a woman in the White House as the actual president, commander in chief.”
Drake senior JaShay Fisher-Fowler said she is left-leaning, but feels Sanders’ free college plan goes too far.
“I’m interested in Hillary, I think she wants to make college debt-free,” Fisher-Fowler said. “I believe O’Malley wants to make college debt-free as well. My concern with Bernie trying to make college free in general — I have a concern with that. That’s kind of unreasonable, and you don’t want to take the value away from a degree or a value from education. I think paying to go to school is good; it places value on the education that you’re getting versus getting an education for free. I really do like O’Malley’s and Hillary’s standpoint on leaving college debt-free.”
Sophomore Logan Kentner, president of the Drake University College Republicans, said as a college student he would like to see reform to make college more affordable, but felt making it free was too far.
“I see college as an investment into your future,” Kentner said. “I think that trying to make college free is absurd because it’s not really an investment if it’s free. I do think that making it affordable is realistic, and needs to be done, but there’s limitations to that.”
On college campuses and even at Republican candidate rallies, it was difficult to find conservative students among the crowds of supporters. Kentner said he was unsure of who Drake University students were leaning toward, but had heard a lot of talk about Jeb Bush. Bush ended in sixth place, carrying 2.8 percent of the votes, far behind U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), who won with 27.7 percent.
“I think there’s a large support of Jeb on campus,” Kentner said. “And you’re going to see a large support group for the more moderate people on campus just because college campuses typically don’t lean too far right — specifically on social issues.”
Kentner said Drake conservatives were most interested in economic policy.
At the University of Michigan, earlier this year, the University’s chapter of College Republicans told The Michigan Daily that in a straw poll conducted among the group, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio (R–Fla.) was the favored candidate among the group. Rubio notched a third place finish in Iowa, carrying 23.1 percent of the vote.
Few college-aged students were present at a Cruz rally in Iowa City Sunday. Of the few students at a Donald Trump rally in Cedar Rapids, most interviewed said they went to see him because they were curious, but didn’t necessarily side with their beliefs.
Trump came in second place in Monday’s caucuses with 24.3 percent of the vote.
Hamline University freshman Chris Covert, a Iowa native who attended Trump’s Cedar Rapids rally, said he felt the candidate, while important to see, didn’t address issues he was interested in such as global warming and national security.
“His message is so provocative and it catches the people’s attention, and that’s something that spoke to me,” Covert said. “He’s not a politician people are used to, he’s speaking a message that goes against the federalist system that we have now. I’m not a huge Trump fan at all, I’m more of a Sanders guy but I think it’s important to pay attention and follow the political scene.”
Emily Montgomery, a masters student at Appalachian State University in North Carolina, wore a Donald Trump beanie to the rally, which she attended with a class. She said she likes Trump because his beliefs align with hers on immigration.
“I’m interested in the Republican Party in general, it’s what I identify with, and I’m interested in his immigration reform; that’s what draws him to me the most,” Montgomery said.
For some students across the aisle, immigration also proved important. Fisher-Fowler and Edwards both said they have friends whose parents are undocumented, and that’s what drove them to caucus Democrat.
Wadle, Grinnell sophomore and president of the Grinnell College Campus Democrats, said Grinnell students are passionate about both national issues such as college affordability and improving economic inequality, and local issues like renewable fuel standards and economic development of rural areas.
At Clinton’s Des Moines rally, Simpson College seniors Natasha Shehade and Sarah Beadle, wearing pink Planned Parenthood shirts, said they supported her because of her commitment to women’s health care.
“I really appreciate Planned Parenthood’s support of Hillary Clinton; personally, reproductive health is so important to me,” Shehade said. “They haven’t supported a candidate in over 100 years which speaks a lot to how important they think her work as president would be for reproductive health.”
Beadle said she was interested in Clinton’s devotion to the Affordable Care Act, an issue Clinton has used to draw distinctions between herself and Sanders.
“Her general feelings on health care is a big issue for me,” Beadle said. “I love that Obamacare allows collegiate students to be on their parents’ health care until they’re 26. I know I plan on going to grad school, and not having to worry about the gap between my employment in the summer is really nice.”
For students in other states with later primaries, like Michigan, the opportunities to engage as directly might not be as present. Most candidates on both sides have been to the state only once or twice since announcing their campaign, or not at all, such as Sanders.
Wadle said given the extra attention Iowa gets in the process, it’s heavily important for college students in the state to take part and show that they care about the issues and want to engage.
“To have young people participating, that’s the most important thing to me personally,” Wadle said. “It’s really important that we have a strong presence in the Iowa caucus and we show that young people are politically engaged and they are thinking about what they want — and they have a variety of opinions. And making sure that we continue that representation on into the county convention, the district convention, the state convention and then hopefully having some delegates from Iowa to the national convention.”