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Students should defy stereotypes, involve themselves in caucuses

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | MAY 05, 2011 7:20 AM

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When possible presidential candidates such as former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum come to the University of Iowa campus, they’re greeted by crowds of mostly non-students.

Even Rep. Ron Paul, who is particularly popular among young adults, drew a crowd weighted toward community members when he visited Iowa City in March as part of Bob Vander Plaats’ Family Leader tour. Paul’s son, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, former Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Minn. Rep. Michele Bachmann, and Santorum skewed even older.

There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this; civic engagement from any demographic is praiseworthy. But University of Iowa students should pay attention to the candidates visiting and formulate their own opinions, using the benefits granted by their geographical location.

Iowa students are in a unique position, having access to most presidential-nomination candidates long before they inevitably begin pandering to the larger polity and before they converge on the center in an attempt to compete with the opposing party’s nominee. In a political culture dominated by slick advertising and cheering crowds, Iowans have a chance at a more personal experience.

Young people — historically one of the demographics with the lowest voter turnout — should take advantage of this opportunity as one candidate after another tosses her or his hat into the ring.

Natalie Ginty, the Iowa Federation of College Republicans chairwoman, said she hadn’t noticed an uptick in interest yet but anticipated one in the future. “In the fall, there will be a lot more time when students will want to get involved,” Ginty told the DI Editorial Board Wednesday. She predicted that students would form their own groups around specific candidates, as they did in 2008 with Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney.

As Ginty’s examples demonstrate, this doesn’t just mean keeping on top of political news. Students who invest themselves into the campaign cycle have a chance to ask hard questions of the candidates; while politicians frequently avoid giving straight answers, the response they do give can prove telling. Does a candidate suggest online classes as a higher-education panacea, as do U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann and former Minn. Gov. Tim Pawlenty? Offering one solution to a multifaceted crisis may indicate a less-than-thoughtful platform.

Given, the campaign is still young — but facing tough questions from a constituency that flexed its electoral muscles in 2008 may help set candidates’ agendas.

“[Republican candidates] are recognizing that there are young people involved in the party, and they need our vote,” Ginty said. “They need us; they need to cater to us. Our vote matters more than others.”

In other words, the Republican Party has learned its lesson after President Obama’s successful rallying of the college vote in 2008. Hopefully, students learned the proper lesson from 2008, too: not that candidates frequently prove disappointing but that the youth vote can have a serious effect on the outcome of an election. Candidates will be looking for issues to galvanize students, and education policy is one such topic that students can easily track.

This is not to suggest that students are, or should be, single-issue voters. Rather, the prevailing political apathy should give way in the face of policies that affect students directly and immediately.

The national budget and social issues, too, have the potential to motivate wide swaths of the university population.

This sort of motivation benefits our democracy, which is strengthened not only by voting but by direct involvement with the political system, including pressure on and dialogue with political figures (and running in local elections). Electoral politics tend to draw out the cynics, who rightly express frustration with the inaccessibility of national politics and the general dearth of choices. But caucuses particularly offer voters a chance to support candidates that they find more amenable to their interests than party insiders — and impotent complaining doesn’t provide greater political efficacy.

Even if they find themselves unable, in all conscience, to caucus or cast a vote for anyone in 2012, students owe it to themselves to be informed. Follow candidates on Twitter, read the fledgling platforms, and bust the stereotypes of youth disaffection.

It may be too late for this school year, but next year’s caucus frenzy should see a greater student engagement.


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