01/03/2008 12:21 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Getting the Kids Out to Caucus in Iowa: "It's Not a Mystery"

It's no easy task to light a fire on the campaign trail when the wind chill doesn't break zero degrees all day -- which it most definitely didn't on Wednesday in Iowa City.

Bone-chilling, soul-numbing Midwest cold or not, John Brophy and Erik Smith had a message to sell here, alongside each of the several candidates who dropped in throughout the day: that young voters will be major players in electoral politics throughout 2008.

According to Brophy and Smith -- field organizers with the nonpartisan Public Interest Research Group's Student Empowerment Training Project (which works in conjunction with Rock the Vote) -- young voters' numbers have only increased in recent years, and student participants will have a resounding impact both Thursday and next November.

They're here to turn out those caucus-goers, and to be sure that candidates hear their message. The group's "What's Your Plan?" program has sought to specifically engage candidates on specific student-related policy issues like tuition hikes and housing access, according to Brophy.

"A lot of candidates now, they look for us in the crowd," he said. "Right now, Hillary Clinton, she recognizes us. That's what we really want."

They argue that it will be essential for candidates to listen to -- and respond to -- younger voters in order to achieve electoral success in 2008.

"It's not a mystery," Smith said at Iowa Memorial Union, where the two had organized a public training session aimed at filling in students on the specifics of caucus participation. "[Students] are going to come out ... they're going to come out in force.

The trends are there, he said, pointing to PIRG statistics that 18-to-24-year-old voter turnout increased 11 points between 2000 and 2004.

Between the 2002 and 2006 mid-term elections, the same demographic increased turnout by 24 percent, according to Young Voter Strategies (which also coordinates with Rock the Vote).

But this year, for the first time, Iowa's first-in-the-nation caucus falls neatly in the middle of winter break from every university in the state. If the students aren't clustered together at universities, well, generating organized student turnout at a caucus becomes a tougher proposition. At the end of Brophy and Smith's information session, a generous pile of literature and "Rock the Vote" T-shirts were unclaimed; only a handful of students sat down to chat.

Although the universities are empty, Smith said, organizers are counting on students who have gone home to caucus with their parents. "The students are spread across the state," he said. "A lot of these people have gone home to their small towns and ... will go out with their parents to caucus."

In an effort to attract as many other students as possible, almost every major school across the state has opened some sort of student housing in some form to accommodate caucus-goers who plan to return specifically to participate (university housing is generally closed during extended breaks). Grinnell College, for example, will offer its gym as temporary housing for caucus-going students.

If the students do continue recent turnout trends and come back to school -- or if they caucus at home in large numbers -- the new million-dollar question becomes which candidates those students will support.

The final Des Moines Register Iowa poll released this week identified Barack Obama as the overwhelming leader among first-time caucus-goers (many of whom are young voters), with Clinton a far second. And while Clinton is looking to draw in women who haven't caucused in the past, Reuters reported this week on the Obama campaign's propensity to turn new marketing tools such as Facebook into participation from younger voters.

At a rally for John Edwards at an Iowa City coffee shop Wednesday, many of the college-aged attendees were there specifically to work the crowd as volunteers for the senator. Of those who made the trek to actually attend the rally, pro-Obama and undecided sentiments shone through.

Morgen Sedlacek, a University of Iowa freshman, said on the way out of Edwards' coffee stop that she planned to caucus for Obama, citing lobbyist money and rising tuition rates as her key motivating factors in selecting a candidate.

"In Iowa City, [Obama] is probably the most popular candidate" among young voters, Sedlacek said. A number of other young voters indicated that they were still undecided -- or had narrowed their decision to two of the three front runners -- a day out from the caucus.

For their part, Brophy and Smith enjoyed a good deal more success in getting their word out after leaving the relative monotony of a deserted student union for the packed house that came to hear Edwards' closing sell. The pile of literature and T-shirts were gone within minutes as the crowd followed Sen. Edwards out the door and down the street, past the two young men in "Rock the Vote" shirts eliciting promises to bring friends and family to caucus.

"The kids we've talked to are really excited about voting in this caucus, whether they're Republican or Democrat," Smith said. "This election is going to be decided by young people."