AMES, IOWA — In the days leading up to the 2004 Iowa caucuses, Iowa State University's sprawling campus crackled with excitement. Volunteers, celebrities and candidates thronged the university, urging students to vote in the nation's first presidential contest. Campus rallies had the charged atmosphere of rock concerts, and singer Joan Jett stopped by to belt out a new take on her hit "I Love Rock N' Roll" -- "I Love Howard Dean."
It's going to be different this time: The Iowa caucuses are being held Jan. 3, the middle of winter break. With college students home for the holidays, campuses across the state will be empty.
But the early caucus date could shift voter dynamics, adding young voices at their hometown caucuses across the state while diminishing the turnout at college precincts. Or, it could mean even fewer college students will take part in the electoral process.
Either outcome will affect the tally for Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, who is in a tight race with Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York to carry the state. The Obama campaign is banking on young voters, and the timing of this year's caucuses could work to his advantage.
"It's much easier to get kids to caucus if they're on campus," said Gordon Fischer, former chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party and an Obama supporter. "But when they're spread out, students can have a lot more impact."
Small share of voters
In Iowa, as in the rest of the nation, college-age voters are a sliver of the electorate. The Iowa Democratic Party reports that of the 124,000 voters who participated in the 2004 caucus, 3.9% were between 18 and 24. The Republican Party of Iowa does not track the age of its caucus-goers, but a spokeswoman said its numbers were probably similar.
Although students tend to register as voters on campus in Iowa, it's easy to switch their registration on caucus night and vote at precincts in their hometowns.
The Republican presidential race appears unlikely to be swayed by the student turnout, but the Democratic primary could be, said Iowa State University political science professor Dianne Bystrom.
"Obama is helped the most by turnout of young voters," she said.
Of the Democratic candidates, the Illinois senator has the greatest support among young people and the least among senior citizens. So if Obama student supporters caucus in their hometowns, where the average caucus-goer is in his early 60s, they could help the senator pick up delegates in areas where his support might otherwise be lukewarm, Bystrom said.
If fewer college students vote, that would hamper Obama's efforts and help former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, who has weaker support among young people and higher support among baby boomers, she said. Clinton's candidacy is unlikely to be affected because she has broad support across age groups.
But many question whether students would make the effort, particularly without the on-campus prodding of groups such as the Young Voters Project.
"They'll just forget about it," worried Iowa State sophomore Greta Johnson, 20, an undecided Republican and an intern at the Catt Center for Women and Politics.
University officials are dealing with the early date by getting the word out to students about the ease of registering at home, and making accommodations for those who plan to return to campus to attend the caucus.
Hundreds of Iowa State students attended a recent panel in the Memorial Union hosted by the Catt Center, where party officials explained how the caucus works.
Mary Ann Spicer, president of the Polk County Republican Women, led students in call-and-respond chants of "Iowa" and "Caucus," before urging them to vote on Jan. 3.
"You can register the night of the caucus. This is good," she said. "If you cannot come back to your primary school base, attend and register at your home base."
Fischer, the Obama supporter, was more blunt.
"I would get down on my hands and knees and beg you to come to the Iowa caucus," he said. "Please, please come out. You can really make a difference."
After the panel, sophomore Sarah Johnson said she planned to caucus for Obama in her hometown of Clinton, about 220 miles from school.
Overwhelmed by the complex caucus system, Johnson had not planned on caucusing until she learned at the forum that by supporting Obama in her hometown instead of her adopted college town, her voice will carry greater weight.
"I really didn't know the details about what the caucus is," said the 19-year-old communications major. "I can have more of an impact."
Under the Democratic caucus system, candidates must show "viability" by having the support of a fixed percentage of precinct attendees based on the number of delegates that each precinct awards.
By caucusing in a smaller precinct in her hometown, Johnson could help Obama be named a viable candidate there, a designation that would be a given at her college precinct.