On Thursday afternoon it wasn’t looking good for Barack Obama. The pundits were forecasting that his chances of winning Iowa hinged on young caucus-goers, mostly college students. He was begging young people to come out, asking out-of-state students to return from their breaks early to caucus for him, to sleep in college gymnasiums and to bring their friends.

To a person who has seen students’ half-hearted attempts at activism firsthand, that sounded like a naive strategy. Young people generally don’t vote. Sometimes they get together on the Diag and shout about something until they have homework to do. Sometimes they join Facebook groups. Sometimes they write columns in their campus newspapers.

Then on Thursday night students did a peculiar thing. They logged off of Facebook. They put their summer internship searches on hold. They bundled up. They got into cars and buses, a small group of people representing a generation of people, traveling through the cornfields and the cold, on their way to farmhouses and high school gyms. They caucused.

Some in the news media have celebrated this as a generational uprising fit for Hollywood. By listening to them, you might believe the nation’s youth have come out of the Iowa corn like the long-dead baseball players in “Field of Dreams.” It’s hard not to be romantic about this, but it’s important to be a little skeptical.

According to some reports, youth turnout at the caucuses increased dramatically from 2004, tripling to 65,000 among 17- to 29-year-olds. Obama commanded more than 50 percent of those voters on the Democratic side, propelling him to an eight-point victory over John Edwards and a nine-point triumph (there’s really no other word) over Hillary Clinton.

Turnout among people of all ages was up from 124,000 in 2004 to about 240,000 this year among Democrats and from 87,666 in 2000 to about 116,000 this year among Republicans. The increases were products of the wide-open, emotional race, but also of the roughly 44,000 extra young people.

In student-dominated areas the turnout was especially dramatic, boosting Obama. A precinct in Des Moines near Drake University with 279 caucus-goers four years ago had 444 this year. In Ward One, which includes Grinnell College, Obama won 21 of 37 delegates.

But is the surprising turnout of young voters a new trend or a fluke?

We’ll find out more during the spring Michigan Student Assembly election, in this fall’s state Senate elections and in the next Ann Arbor mayoral election – and during the general election, especially if Obama isn’t nominated.

Obama drew many of those young voters. In a lot of ways, he’s the ideal candidate for students. He’s 46 years old. He’s attractive. He’s biracial. His selling point is hope, something we still have a lot of. Hillary Clinton’s selling point is the fear of change, something we don’t have a lot of. In short, he’s the best of us. He’s the America we’re not yet too jaded to believe in.

When the options aren’t as stark – or as emotional – as Obama (the new guard) and Clinton (the old guard), will young people still come out to vote?

One thing that is clear: If young people want to have the power to change things – things as global as America’s strategy in a volatile Pakistan or as local as an Ann Arbor City Council decision to ban couches from porches – they have to vote. There’s nothing Hollywood about that.

Karl Stampfl is the Daily’s editor in chief. He can be reached at

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