With the first test of the 2008 presidential election set to take place at Thursday’s Iowa caucuses, college students there find themselves the focus of one of the season’s most hotly contested narratives.
During the past several months, both pundits and politicians have questioned the ethics of presidential candidates – in particular Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) – who have encouraged out-of-state students who attend Iowa colleges to return to Iowa to participate in the caucus today.
In November, Obama’s campaign began distributing brochures on college campuses in Iowa urging students who attend colleges in Iowa but aren’t permanent Iowa residents to return to their college towns and caucus.
During a December speech at the University of Iowa, where nearly 40 percent of the school’s enrollment is comprised of out-of-state students, Obama said to students, “If you’re going to be out of state, I want you to come back and caucus.”
Earlier that day at Grinnell College, a private school in Iowa where only 13 percent of students are Iowa residents, Obama told students to ignore those who criticized him – presidential candidates Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) – for reaching out to out-of-state students.
“Don’t let somebody tell you that you are not part of this process because your future is at stake, and America’s future is at stake,” Obama said.
Although out-of-state college students in Iowa can legally return to caucus in the city where their schools are located according to the Iowa secretary of state, Obama’s opponents challenged the spirit of his tactics.
“I was deeply disappointed to read today about the Obama campaign’s attempt to recruit thousands of out-of-state residents to come to Iowa for the caucuses,” said Julie Andreeff Jensen, Dodd’s Iowa campaign director, in a statement released Dec. 1. “That may be the way politics is played in Chicago, but not in Iowa.”
At a campaign stop in Clear Lake, Iowa, Clinton said the Jan. 3 caucus “is a process for Iowans. This needs to be all about Iowa, and people who live here, people who pay taxes here.”
David Yepsen, a columnist for The Des Moines Register, wrote in a column that the Jan. 3 caucuses should instead be called “the Illinois caucuses,” referring to Obama’s courting of out-of-state students.
Although other campaigns on both sides of the political spectrum were admittedly recruiting out-of-state college students to caucus, Yepsen said Obama’s attempt to get out-of-state students to return for the caucuses “was unprecedented.”
“No presidential campaign in memory has ever made such a large, open attempt to encourage students from another state to participate in Iowa’s caucuses,” Yepsen wrote.
But soon after chiding Obama for encouraging out-of-state students to caucus, both the Clinton and Dodd campaigns revised their original positions and now support the rights of out-of-state students to caucus.
A statement released by Clinton spokesman Howard Wolfson said “Hillary wants every student who lives in Iowa and wants to caucus in Iowa and is eligible to caucus in Iowa to do so.”
Dodd echoed Clinton’s new position, albeit less explicitly, saying, “Clearly students who are eligible can vote under the law and of course we welcome the participation of Iowa students in the caucuses.”
Though the campaigns have, for the most part, changed their tune on the issue of out-of-state student caucus-goers, criticisms on the issue still persist. Some argue that because non-resident students don’t pay taxes directly to the state, they shouldn’t be able to caucus.
Atul Nakhasi, president of the University of Iowa Democrats, said that particular criticism of students was partially inaccurate, as many students pay monthly electric and water bills to the local municipal governments in college towns.
In addition, out-of-state students attending public universities like the University of Iowa or Iowa State University make tuition payments to the state of Iowa.
With that in mind, Nakhasi saw no reason why out-of-state students should not be afforded the same caucusing rights as students who legally reside Iowa.
“We pay to live and study in Iowa much more than in our hometowns,” Nakhasi said. “And there’s absolutely no reason to disenfranchise eligible student voters from taking part in the Iowa political process.”
Yet despite the outcry from those supporting the right of out-of-state students to caucus in Iowa, there is little evidence pointing to whether out-of-state students will actually make the trip back to their college towns to caucus today.
Nakhasi said hundreds of University of Iowa students expressed interest in participating in the caucus at the end of the fall semester, but that factors such as inclement weather, driving distances and returning to school over winter break would likely deter many students from coming back to caucus.
Jennie Lahlum, a freshman at Coe College, said that after working for the Obama campaign last semester in Cedar Rapids – where Coe College is located – there was no doubt in her mind she’d make the drive from her hometown of Chicago back to Iowa to caucus.
“I decided to caucus after realizing how important it was and how privileged the people of Iowa are for having the first decision in the next presidential election,” Lahlum said.
Lahlum praised those candidates who have encouraged students to participate in the caucus, and said her decision to caucus was reaffirmed by candidates supporting the rights of out-of-state students to participate today.
“Before this campaign I wasn’t involved in anything but music,” Lahlum said, “and now that I’m doing this I really feel like I can make a difference.”