DES MOINES – At a small office here in the city’s East Village, volunteers for Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign made phone calls to Iowans, informing them of the Illinois senator’s positions on key issues and encouraging them to caucus for him.
As it turns out, Obama won the caucus handily, winning strong support from new voters and young people.
Inside the office, Obama ’08 campaign placards covered the walls, with one-word messages like “Hope” and “Trust,” and large red, white and blue hand-painted banners hung above volunteers who were talking enthusiastically on the phone.
The volunteers – many of whom were college students – worked on laptops, looked up phone numbers of Iowan voters or checked their e-mail. Near the back of the room, several others took a break from the action to throw a football.
Apart from the brightly colored posters and mountains of discarded coffee cups, what stood out in this particular office, and also at other offices and candidate-sponsored events throughout Iowa, was the overwhelming presence of hard-working and energetic young people.
Although most Americans can watch, read and hear about all the candidates on a daily basis, whether in newspapers or on television or radio, what they don’t see are the students doing the behind-the-scenes work for each campaign.
While candidates attended pancake breakfasts and spoke to large crowds at fancy hotels, young volunteers passed out campaign fliers and knocked on doors in below-freezing temperatures here in Iowa.
Tarak Shah, a Cornell University graduate student from Chicago, greeted volunteers, answered phones and organized caucus carpools at Obama’s East Village office. He arrived here the day after Christmas to volunteer for the campaign in the lead-up to the caucus.
Shah, who first met Obama as an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, said he didn’t mind giving up so much of his winter break because the work would support the presidential candidate he believes is best suited to lead the nation.
Shah said he feels a certain amount of ownership of the campaign because he has invested so much time and energy in it.
“When I talk about Senator Obama’s campaign, I call it our campaign,” Shah said. “Even though I’m a volunteer, it really does feel like it’s an inclusive campaign that’s worked so hard to reach out to students and young people in general.”
Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul’s campaign brought in almost 275 students from 39 states and four countries to canvass for the Texas congressman these last two weeks.
Jeff Frazee, Paul’s national youth coordinator, said the students passed out campaign literature, went to the homes of Iowans and tried to spread Paul’s limited government and anti-war message throughout as much of the state as possible.
Paul’s campaign offered student volunteers free hotel rooms, food and gas money if they signed up to come work for the campaign. All students had to do was find a way to get to Iowa.
“These are all students who took the initiative to volunteer, saying, ‘I’m going to give up my Christmas break and I’m going to come to Iowa because I think this campaign is important,’ ” Frazee said.
At a rally on Wednesday for Democratic candidate John Edwards in an Iowa City coffee house, students comprised almost all of the event’s organizers and staffers.
While Edwards told a packed room to “fight against corporate greed” and “take their democracy back,” student volunteers passed out pamphlets outlining Edwards’ positions on key issues, distributed posters and signed up caucus-goers who pledged to support Edwards.
Long after Edwards had finished his speech and left Iowa City for the next stop on his whirlwind “Marathon for the Middle Class” bus tour, student volunteers remained, cleaning up the coffee house.
One volunteer groaned about having to pick up empty coffee cups that had been left behind.
“When John Edwards is our next president,” a friend replied, “this’ll all be worth it.”