By Zoë Haggard/ Seigenthaler News Service
Zoe Haggard was one of six MTSU journalism students who spent four days in Iowa covering the Iowa caucus system. Funding was provided by the Seigenthaler Center for Excellence in First Amendment Studies.
Des Moines, Iowa—Twelve of the remaining Democratic presidential candidates spoke Saturday to several hundred college-age students, a demographic each are hoping to capture in the voting polls. The event was an Economic Freedom Town Hall held by Drake University’s NAACP Chapter and it brought the students face-to-face with the candidates.
All the candidates, from Pete Buttigieg, whose campaign is gaining ground in Iowa, to candidates like U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, whose popularity has been on the decline, seek the college vote. Former Congressman Beto O’Rourke of Texas was also in the hunt for young voters, but dropped from the race on Nov. 1.
In fact, the number of college-age voters has declined over the past decade, coming to just about one third of millennials, about 22.5 million eligible voters, who cast a ballot in the 2018 midterms, according to an NBC News and GenForward survey.
“It’s very important for college students to be engaged—stay engaged. Anytime they can take the opportunity to be on campus and still exercise their civic engagement and civic duties is really a blessing for them,” said Matthew Gilbert, a local attorney based in Des Moines.
Gilbert is also the economic development chairman for the Des Moines NAACP chapter and helped put together the town hall.
The Drake University event was low-key compared to the Liberty and Justice Celebration the night before, held at the Wells Fargo Arena, where a near capacity crowd of 13,000 supporters kept the decibel-level high and candidates walked to the stage through smoke that suddenly appeared as the spotlight followed them.
Through strategies like live streaming—which enable people to still interact at events like this even from home—as well as engaging students across social media, colleges are wanting to get more students involved in political events and especially voting.
“It’s important for students to look out for these opportunities because a lot of times they are going to be our future leaders and they are, right now on these campuses, shaping where we go,” he said.
And college students at the event agreed.
“The percentages for millennials voting is very low, and I just feel like we could change that,” said Cassandra Bragg, a sophomore from Des Moines Area Community College, located down the road from Drake.
She is the president of the West Des Moines NAACP chapter which she helped to charter and co-found.
At the forum, Bragg said she found Buttigieg and Julian Castro, who both spoke at the event, to have delivered the best two speeches.
For her, ending gun violence, protecting voters’ rights for minorities and changing sentencing guidelines for people of color are all key issues to discuss at events like these. These are the issues that drives her to participate in the caucuses on Feb. 3, 2020, she said.
“We’re the most diverse generation there is…We’re the ones that can make the change. So I feel like it’s very important to get involved with caucusing and let other people know and spread awareness,” said Bragg.
Eisha Tolson, a freshman at DMACC, also attended the event.
“I think that as young people, we need to get more interested in politics. It may seem boring, but it really will benefit us in the long run,” she said.
Tolson plans to study mass communication and agricultural business. For her, issues concerning the environment, education within the minority community and voting rights were all top priorities.
Meeting the candidates face-to-face at the forum and listening to their answers and plans, then helped her to develop her top three choices, which also include Buttigieg.
“I thought it was nice to meet all the candidates and see how genuine and humble some of them are. So, it was just a good experience,” she said.
Both Tolson and Bragg plan to caucus and vote in the 2020 election.
But the caucus itself and the events leading up to Feb. 3 are not the end-all-be-all.
“I think the caucus system is not a perfect beast. I think the caucus does not really get us to the underlying policy issues. It’s not something that really helps us refine our issues any,” said Gilbert.
Yet despite the lack of policy refinement, Gilbert said he still plans to participate in the caucuses.
“But I do think that it gives us a chance to listen for those candidates that are speaking to the issues that we have close to our hearts.”
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