DES MOINES – After a long night of caucusing today, Grinnell College junior Alec Schierenbeck plans to join nearly 100 fellow student caucus-goers who will be spending the night on Grinnell’s campus an hour east of the capital.
Unfortunately for Schierenbeck and his peers, their housing arrangements will be sleeping bags, foam pads and the cold, wooden gym floor of an old Grinnell physical education building.
Many Iowa college students participating in the caucus today face not only the tough decision of choosing a candidate to support, but also must find somewhere to stay tonight, as many colleges have closed their dormitories for winter break.
“The gym isn’t ideal, but I think it shows just how excited students are to come back and caucus, that they’re willing to drive across the country and sleep in a gym for the night,” said Schierenbeck, who is the president of the College Democrats of Iowa.
In closely contended caucuses, the student vote could give some candidates an advantage.
Democratic contender Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the candidate who has emphasized the student vote most, has been criticized for encouraging out-of-state students to return to the state to participate in the caucus.
At a private college like Grinnell, where about 85 percent of students come from outside Iowa, any form of university housing available to students – even if it’s a hard gym floor – is necessary to encourage students to participate in the caucus, Schierenbeck said.
The University of Iowa, located about 60 miles west of the Illinois border, in Iowa City, is only keeping two of its 10 dormitories open during its winter break, which lasts until Jan. 22.
Phillip Jones, dean of students at the University of Iowa, said the university had no plans to open additional dorms for the caucus.
The two open dorms are meant to accommodate international students who remain on campus during the break, Jones said.
Jones cited the small amount of students who live in the dorms during the school year -about 2,500 – compared to the nearly 25,000 students who live off campus as one of the main reasons why the university didn’t need to open more dorms for the caucus.
Jones said only two or three students had formally requested university housing for the night of the caucus before the fall semester ended Dec. 21.
“It can be hard to judge if there’s any demand when only one-fifth of students live on campus,” Jones said. “But as far as I can tell, there has been very little demand coming from students looking to get into the rooms that are already available over winter break.”
Rooms in the Iowa House Hotel on campus are also available to students at a discounted rate, Jones said.
About 100 miles west at Iowa State University in Ames, the Department of Residence announced in December that only one dorm would remain open during winter break -and only to students with existing ISU housing contracts.
Several other Iowa colleges, including the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, also announced in December they would make university-owned housing options available to students for the night of the caucus.
Despite the lack of housing options at major state universities like the University of Iowa and Iowa State University, it’s unlikely that a shortage of options will discourage students – especially out-of-state students – from returning for the caucus.
The Young Voter PAC, a student voting rights lobbying group, is offering student caucus-goers free hotel rooms and gas money in an effort to encourage more students to participate today.
All students have to do is fill out a simple online application form available on the group’s website.
The group is also organizing carpooling groups for students traveling to Iowa with a Facebook.com group. As of last night, the group “Hey Clinton, Stop Telling Young Voters to Stay Home” had 67 people confirmed to an event called “Come Back to Caucus in Iowa.”
Atul Nakhasi, president of the University of Iowa Democrats, said the Young Voter PAC had also provided his organization with separate funding to book hotel rooms for students interested in returning to caucus.
Jane Fleming Kleeb, Young Voter PAC’s executive director, said once it was announced that the caucus was moved up to today, her organization needed to take action to ensure that all students, both in- and out-of-state, had the accommodations to participate in the caucus.
“When candidates started saying that students shouldn’t come back to caucus, we knew right then we had to stand for the youth vote,” Kleeb said.
Kleeb said over 150 students have requested funding from Young Voter PAC, and she added that the total amount doesn’t include students who are carpooling together to Iowa.
“We were thrilled with the response because, as past years tell us, small numbers can mean a lot in the Iowa caucuses,” Kleeb said.