Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2016 | Features

Fight for the Future

By Jennifer Hemmingsen
Millennials possess the power to completely reshape American politics. But will they?
fight for the future ILLUSTRATIONS: OLIVER WEISS

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s the clock crept closer to 7 p.m. on Feb. 1, the official start of the 2016 Iowa presidential caucuses, the voters kept coming. Lines wound around the block at precinct after precinct, including the Iowa City Public Library where Trent Seubert stood with nearly 650 other caucus-going Democrats—all eager to start the national conversation about this year's candidates.

His eyes scanned the line for voters he knew were there because of him, and it felt good to know the campaign shoeleather of the previous weeks had paid off. But even more satisfying: many of those jamming the caucus sites around campus and throughout town were University of Iowa students. The last time Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucuses were held while UI classes were still in session, these young voters were swinging from monkey bars on the elementary school playground. They'd come to cast their support for Bernie or Hillary or one of the multiple Republican candidates—to see grassroots democracy in action. For some, it was their first real experience with politics. But for campaign volunteers like Seubert (a Hillary Clinton supporter) and Meaghan O'Brien (from Marco Rubio's campaign), the caucuses were a capstone to months of relentless work. They'd lost track of the time dedicated to rallying fellow students behind their candidates, propelled by passion, determination, and steaming cups of coffee.

Before the polished stump speeches and picture-perfect campaign stops come hundreds of hours of personal time from volunteers, many of them students already with full-time commitments. Such campaign workers log early mornings and late nights, identifying likely supporters and persuading them—one by one—why their candidate deserves the presidency.

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Despite their dedication, politics is a slow and steady grind. Volunteers comb through phone lists of registered voters they believe they can count on, only to hear a click and the sound of a dial tone. They march in parades, staff card tables of literature and sign-up sheets to grow their lists of supporters. Spending days canvassing neighborhoods and knocking on doors, they hope for a few seconds to convince someone of a candidate's values. They are shouted at, outright ignored, chased by dogs, and sometimes get a door slammed in the face.

Students matter in this election, and they seem to realize the stakes are high. According to population estimates, millennials (people aged 18-34) are now the largest generational voting bloc in the U.S. with the ability to significantly influence this presidential election. Surveys show that half the people born after 1980 don't consider themselves Republicans or Democrats. In a 2014 Pew Research Center study, more than a quarter of the millennial survey respondents say they don't see any substantive differences between the two major American political parties.

Presidential campaigns rarely dedicate precious resources getting young people to the polls because they're viewed as fickle. Students are busy and preoccupied with full course loads, homework, jobs, and friends, and often feel ambivalent about politics. "Everybody knows younger people don't turn out to vote at as high a rate as older groups," says UI associate political science professor Tim Hagle, "but the young people will turn out if you can capture their imagination."

Hagle, also the faculty advisor for the College Republicans, says candidates who exude authenticity, such as John F. Kennedy, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, secure the youth trust and vote—sometimes for the win. Because millennials listen to their peers about candidates, it takes motivated student campaign volunteers to do the convincing.

In the earlier days of the campaign cycle, Bernie Sanders and Rubio emerged as the candidates capable of tapping that youthful optimism. Hagle says his group felt like Rubio spoke the truth and that resonated. Rubio, whose popularity proved unsteady among the broader voting public, had significant support among UI students in the Feb. 1 caucus. His campaign ran aground when he failed to win the primary in his home state of Florida.

Rubio's authenticity appealed to O'Brien, 20, who had never been politically active at home in Arlington Heights, Illinois. As soon as she found out Rubio was running, she started reaching out weekly to the campaign to offer her help. He had a different quality that appealed to her. In early October, she started Students for Marco with the goal to inspire students to caucus. That would prove no easy task.

The hard work of a political organizer proves especially challenging when the target is young voters. Not only are these voters more disengaged, but they can be difficult to find and track. Without a voting history, they don't show up on lists of registered voters and rarely appear in telephone directories. They change residences frequently, and their schedules can make door-to-door campaigning an exercise in futility.

O'Brien connected with her audience through social media and text messaging. She and other Rubio supporters tabled at high-traffic locations like the Iowa Memorial Union. O'Brien coordinated all this work and more while attending classes, working a part-time job, and staying active in Greek life. It was exhausting. Then in December, she reaped her reward. The Rubio campaign brought the candidate to speak on campus at the Kinnick Stadium press box.

Before a crowd of about 200 people, the Florida senator talked about student debt and national security. "It was incredible," O'Brien says. "A lot of people put a lot of time and effort into that event, and just to see the sheer number of people who came out to see him made my heart swell."

Such experiences prove so rewarding that the UI political science department offers internship credit for students who volunteer for political candidates, usually 50 volunteer hours per credit hour and up to three credit hours per semester. A professor supervises each internship and coordinates the details. When Hagle is the supervisor, he makes sure the campaigns understand student interns aren't there just to make phone calls and do errands; they should have a chance to jump in the middle of the action, attending events and meeting candidates. "After all," Hagle points out, "you're in Iowa. Whether it's for the caucuses or for the general election, this is a tremendous opportunity to participate in the process because you don't get this much attention in other places."

"It was incredible; a lot of people put a lot of time and effort into that event, and just to see the sheer number of people who came out to see him made my heart swell."
Meagan O'Brien

Seubert, 21, the chairman of University Democrats, attests to some rewarding political experiences most students will never claim. A health and human physiology major from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Seubert threw himself headlong into strengthening on-campus support for Clinton, using every tool at his disposal to build her base. Thanks to his hard work, he earned the honor of introducing President Bill Clinton at a Washington, Iowa, event and personally attended the Democratic debate at Drake University.

Life on the stump has taught him firsthand about the political process. "Campaigns have given me a level of understanding of politics that most people don't recognize," he says. "It has invested me into that process for life. Plus, you get to change real lives, and you can't get anything better than that."

After proving their mettle as volunteers, some UI students land paid positions with campaigns. Most of them are hired as field staffers, assigned to a district to coordinate activities. Some even end up with full-time jobs if their candidate is elected. "Of course, you've got to pick the right candidate to work for," Hagle says, laughing. "One that actually wins."

That's how Mike Davis, 00BA, 04JD, became associate director of the White House Office of Political Affairs under President George W. Bush—at the tender age of 28.

Always interested in politics, Davis interned for House Speaker Newt Gingrich in fall 1998 as part of the Washington Center program, which partners with the UI to offer students 15 semester hours of credit for a full-time internship in Washington, DC.

Davis returned and started the UI Students for George W. Bush. When the group reached 2,000 members, the Bush campaign hired Davis to lead the campaign's caucus effort for 25 colleges in Iowa. Davis later returned to DC to work for Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley, then joined the Bush inaugural committee and the White House liaison office at the Department of Health and Human Services. He eventually decided to enroll in the UI College of Law, where he continued to work on campaigns before taking a second Bush administration post.

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Tyler Lechtenberg, 03BA, a former Daily Iowan reporter, started his career as a sportswriter, but joined Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign after being inspired by the candidate's speeches. Lechtenberg served as the campaign's central Iowa regional field director and later became the deputy director of volunteers for the Presidential Inaugural Committee. Then, three days after Obama's first inauguration, Lechtenberg joined the White House staff as associate director of correspondence for the First Lady, leading a team of volunteers handling Michelle Obama's mail from the East Wing.

Lechtenberg has since become a speechwriter for the Obamas and one of at least 60 White House aides who are veterans of the 2008 presidential campaign. As he once told Iowa Alumni Magazine: "Walking into the White House every day is an incredibly surreal experience, and I don't think it'll ever grow old. Every day, at least once, I have a 'What am I doing here?' moment as I walk by statues of former presidents and literally feel the history that has gone on in these halls."

Even for students who don't pursue political careers, campaign involvement offers a front-row view of the political process and a crash course in leadership that sets them up for success in any field.

"If you can organize people to show up on a cold January night to listen to people discuss politics for a few hours, that is by far the hardest thing to organize in the entire United States political system," Davis says. "If you can get college students to show up and listen for a few hours—that is even harder."

"Politics is really the art of dealing with people," adds Davis. "It's your job to convince them to do something that's bigger than themselves."

"I've been involved in quite a number of organizations, but none that has contributed to my personal growth as much as this."
Alexa Den Herder

Sometimes students don't have to be directly involved in campaign work order to gain valuable experience. Allie Wright, 13BA, got her first close-up view of political campaigns in a reporting class focused on the caucuses, and as a Daily Iowan reporter. Writing about politics ignited a deep passion for public affairs.

"When I was growing up, I took Iowa's status in the political process for granted," Wright says. "Not every state gets the chance to play such a vital role; not everyone has the Barack Obama campaign in the school behind their house."

It was during a class reporting assignment in Coralville where she interviewed Sen. Rick Santorum, who would go on to win the 2012 Iowa caucus. She interviewed Iowa Rep. Dave Loebsack, covered the workings of the state legislature, and interviewed state and local lawmakers.

"Young people, especially in states like Iowa, carry a lot of influence with elected leaders," says Wright, now press and communications coordinator at Save the Children Action Network in Washington. "They care what millennials have to say."


It's 9 p.m. on a Tuesday, about a week after the 2016 Iowa caucuses. If there were such a thing as a political hangover, most Iowans are in the throes of it. Following months of wall-to-wall political advertisements and seemingly daily stump speeches, pie shakes at the Hamburg, and photo ops from presidential hopefuls, voters are ready to think about something else for a change.

But the mood is bright in a ground-floor classroom in Schaeffer Hall, where two dozen College Republicans are primed and pumped for the next chapter. The group's president, Janelle Smithson, steps to the front of the room and calls for attention.

The meeting begins when members rise, hands on hearts, to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

The business before them is an election on a much smaller scale—to elect the student organization's officers for 2016. Spirits remain high after the previous week's record-breaking caucus turnout, which many of them helped coordinate and execute. In Johnson County, 7,227 Republicans cast a vote, a 62 percent increase over the previous record set in 2012.

Smithson, 22, who will complete her degree in political science and social studies secondary education next spring, nominates Alexa Den Herder to replace her as chair.

She lists Den Herder's impressive political accomplishments: internships in Washington with U.S. Rep. Steve King and House Speaker Paul Ryan, campus organizer for Jeb Bush, and volunteer work with conservative political advocacy groups.

Den Herder's opponent, Caleb Bell, has an equally robust résumé: He's helped elect state legislative Republicans, Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, 69BA, and U.S. Senator Joni Ernst. They both take a few minutes to make their case to voters.

"I'm so proud to say that College Republicans has given me a voice here at the University of Iowa," Den Herder says. "I've been involved in quite a number of organizations, but none that has contributed to my personal growth as much as this."

The ballots cast and collected, Den Herder is elected. In the next round of voting, she quickly nominates O'Brien as her vice chair. O'Brien is new to the group, but she's proved herself dedicated and capable in her grassroots efforts.

She makes a brief speech: "I came to College Republicans this year, kind of as an outsider," O'Brien says. "You don't see a lot of us in these parts, but we're here. I was looking for a 'home away from home'—an organization that could help me prosper and flourish as a conservative. I found my passion and my future career through College Republicans."

She's also elected, to enthusiastic shouts and a round of applause.

This summer, O'Brien will intern for a Republican strategy firm in Washington. When she returns, she'll turn her attention to electing the Republican nominee in November. For his part, Seubert wants to get involved in health policy. Short term, his dream is for Clinton to secure the Democratic nomination for president—and to work on her campaign. Once again, both sides will hit the phones, the neighborhoods, and anywhere potential voters gather to push their candidate to the top this fall.

"You can do it" is O'Brien's message to her fellow students. "If you have an interest, or if you're unsatisfied with the way government is working," she says, "you have the power to make a change."

Here are some of the many Iowa alumni who have made their mark in U.S. and global politics over the decades:
Bourke Hickenlooper, 22LLB, 39JD, was a U.S. senator from Iowa who served from 1945 to 1969. George Gallup, 23BA, 25MA, 28PHD, 67LLD, was the founder of the Gallup Poll and named one of Life magazine's 100 most important Americans of the 20th century. Leo Hoegh, 29BA, 32JD, served as Iowa's attorney general and governor in the 1950s, and was a member of President Eisenhower's cabinet.
Homer Calkin, 35BA, 36MA, 39PhD, was a deputy director for the U.S. Department of State from 1950 to 1977. Mary Louise Smith, 35BA, was the first woman to serve as chairperson of the Republican National Committee. Paul Conrad, 50BA, was a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and one of the leading political provocateurs of the latter half of the 20th century.
James Dooge, 56MS was a longtime representative in Ireland's Senate and served as the nation's minister of foreign affairs. Mary Kramer, 57BA, 72MA, was an Iowa state senator, a U.S. ambassador, and chairperson of the White House Commission for Presidential Scholars. Gary Mears, 58BSC, was director for logistics for the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon in the 1990s.
Horace Dawson Jr., 61PhD, was a diplomat for the U.S. in Africa and held key positions in the Department of State and U.S. Information Agency. Robert Anderson, 67BA, 72MA, was the first Democrat in Iowa to serve as lieutenant governor alongside a Republican governor. David Bonior, 67BA, was a Democratic congressman and Whip from Michigan who served in the House from 1976 to 2002.
John Cochran Jr., 67MA, is a television journalist who has covered the White House for ABC News and NBC News. Cheryl Arvidson, 69BA, covered Watergate as a reporter for UPI's Washington bureau in the 1970s. Terry Branstad, 69BA, is Iowa's governor, a title he has held for 21 years, and the longestserving governor in the nation's history.
Shanto Iyengar, 71MA, 72PhD, is a Stanford University professor and leading scholar on politics and the media. Alan Larson, 71BA, 78MA, 82PhD, served in the State Department as undersecretary of state for economics and assistant secretary of state for economic and business affairs. Carol McKay, 71BA, was the White House photo editor during the Reagan Administration.
Greg Ganske, 72BA, 76MD, served in the U.S. House of Representatives for Iowa from 1994 to 2003. Marjorie Mowlam, 74MA, 77PhD, was Britain's secretary of state for Northern Ireland in the late 1990s. Norman Coleman, 76JD, served as mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota, in the 1990s and was a U.S. senator from Minnesota from 2003 to 2009.
Susan Neely, 78BA, was the former assistant secretary of public affairs in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and a toptier advisor to President George W. Bush. Peter Jeffries, 86BS, 15MBA, was communications director for the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and is now national engagements director at AARP. Brian Hook, 99JD, held a number of senior positions in the George W. Bush administration, including special assistant for policy.
Terry Nelson, 94BS, has held senior roles in presidential campaigns, including serving as the national political director for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2004. Jim Leach, was a congressman for Iowa from 1977 to 1997 and is a current law faculty member at UI.  

Jennifer Hemmingsen is an Iowa City-based freelance writer.