Northwestern University students ditched classes on Friday to squeeze into a minivan and drive 234 miles west from their suburban Chicago campus to North Liberty, Iowa – deciding that fulfilling their role in American democracy was more important than studying for midterms.
Instead, they spent their weekend canvassing for former South Bend, Indiana mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.
“I definitely re-evaluated Pete Buttigieg as a candidate,” said Northwestern sophomore Colin Kruse of Los Angeles. “Seeing him speak, hearing his message and trying to convince people to vote for him was incredibly beneficial for me.”
Along with several other students, Kruse said he wasn’t attached to one particular candidate and wanted to see what Buttigieg had to offer.
Northwestern students discovered the canvassing opportunity through a former classmate who is now a field organizer for Buttigieg’s campaign. The organizer told several of his school friends that the campaign would provide housing and snacks in return for canvassing. Over 20 Northwestern students took the offer.
They began knocking on doors at 9 a.m. Saturday. Precinct officers gave volunteers a list of registered Democrats or pronounced Buttigieg supporters in the area. Instead of receiving a script, volunteers were instructed to simply explain why they were enthusiastic about Buttigieg and why he could beat President Donald Trump in the general election.
“The main goal was to get the undecided to support Pete and get Pete supporters to actually go caucus,” said senior Alex Grabast of Lincoln, Nebraska.
In the Iowa caucus, voters first align in groups that support their desired candidate. If a candidate attracts less than 15% of the people attending the caucus, the candidate is not viable and supporters for that candidate can either align with another group, convince others to come to their group or caucus in an uncommitted group. Then, a final count is taken and delegates are given to candidates based on how many supporters are in their group in proportion to the total number of people participating in that precinct’s caucus.
“If Pete wasn’t their first choice, our job was to convince them why Pete should be their second choice,” said senior Jaime El Koury of New York City.
Since the Iowa caucus is the first vote in the presidential election, it is looked at as a way to preview how well candidates may perform moving forward. Candidates who do well in Iowa may receive more donations and media attention. In contrast, candidates who do not perform well may start to recede in polls, donations and the media.
According to several polls, Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-Vt., is the predicted Democratic winner of the Iowa caucuses, followed by former Vice President Joe Biden and Buttigieg.
Despite Buttigieg’s failure to lead state and national polls, all five of the Northwestern students interviewed said they would still vote for Buttigieg in the primary election.
“I’m going to pick the person that I think can best beat Donald Trump because that’s the end goal,” said senior Liz Perkins of Oak Park, Illinois. “That’s one of the reasons I’m starting to support Buttigieg more because some of his policies are a bit more moderate and I think a lot of people in the country would like that.”
Buttigieg’s moderate views are what El Koury also thinks make him an admirable candidate.
“I don’t think the answer to Trump is to swing the pendulum to the complete opposite side of the political spectrum,” said El Koury.
The students said what stood out to them most on their trip was the flaw in giving such an outside importance to the Iowa caucuses because the state’s population is so far off from the demographic composition of the country.
The students agreed that almost all of the people they spoke to in North Liberty and saw at Buttigieg’s rally were white.
“They [the caucuses] have such an outsized influence in primary election politics,” said El Koury. “There is so much emphasis on a state that is not at all representative of the nation.”