Fred D. Thompson, a Republican candidate for president, spoke to a few hundred people the other night in one of the ballrooms in the Marriott convention center here. The crowd, not unusually for Iowa, was decidedly older, for the most part north of 50. A few hours later, Senator Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat, addressed an audience of over 1,000 just up the hallway. His crowd contained a striking number of people under 30.
That is something that is hard to miss at almost any event featuring Mr. Obama, be it in New Hampshire, Iowa or New York. He has clearly struck a chord among younger voters. And his campaign has made what seems to be the most sophisticated effort of any of the Democrats to reach out to them, taking steps like sending recruiting teams to Iowa high schools and trying to ensure that New Hampshire college students who might be out of state on primary day get absentee ballots.
What will this mean in the end?
The truth of the matter is that every four years – as sure as a sunset – stories appear about a surge of interest among younger voters in presidential politics, typically predicting a jump in turn-out that will benefit one campaign or another. It rarely turns out to be true: the percentage of voters under 30 in the total electorate was basically unchanged between 2000 and 2004-- 17 percent, according to surveys of voters leaving the polls. Polls taken by The Times and CBS News last month suggest that there is no difference in the level of support between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton among younger Democratic voters, though they view Mr. Obama slightly more favorably.
But could this finally be the year – and this the candidate – that produces the ever-expected burst of interest among younger voters? Polls aside, the kind of crowds Mr. Obama is drawing – and a walk through his campaign headquarters in Des Moines – certainly suggest that some young people have taken a strong interest in his candidacy.
Mr. Obama and his campaign are definitely working it. Perhaps alone in the field, Mr. Obama, displays an ease in talking with younger voters and a style that cuts across generations. An e-mail Mr. Obama sent out the other day had the subject line “hey” – memo to readers over 50: If you have kids in their teens or over, ask them about it – and signed only “Barack.” Mr. Obama has filled the role of the youthful candidate this year, taking the part that John Edwards played in 2004 (The once-boyish Mr. Edwards, 54 years old, has aged noticeably since his first campaign). At 46, Mr. Obama has just the slightest streak of gray hair, no creases in his face and works out every day to keep trim. Democrats may debate whether his youthfulness makes it tough for him to come across as presidential; at the least, it means that he does not come across as parental, at least not to the newly voting age crowd.
What is more, Mr. Obama has firmly identified himself as an anti-war candidate ,which historically has been an integral part of the appeal of candidates who did well among younger voters (think Eugene McCarthy in 1968 or Howard Dean in 2004). Ken Mehlman, who ran George Bush’s 2004 presidential campaign, has long argued that Mr. Bush was hurt among young voters in the closing weeks of the campaign as Democrats began warning that Mr. Bush would impose a draft in a second term in order to get enough troops to fight the war in Iraq (the White House has always denied considering such a step).
Mr. Obama has taken a personal role in the program his Iowa organizers have set up to recruit potential supporters in Iowa. Voters here are permitted to participate in the caucuses as long as they are 18 by the time of the presidential election. At each stop on his four-day tour through Iowa last week, Mr. Obama put aside time to meet with "Barack Stars," as members of the network are called.
"If you’re going to be 17 by Nov. 4, you can help decide who the next president is," Mr. Obama told students in the town of New Hampton. In Washington, Iowa, after posing for a group photo and taking a few questions, he urged his young audience to volunteer to work on Tuesday night – high school night – at Obama headquarters. "You can’t have beer, but you can have pizza," Mr. Obama said.
One sign of the attention to these voters is that one political parlor game in Iowa is what the early caucuses this year – it’s looking likely it will take place a few days after New Year’s – will mean for college-age voters since they will still be home for the holidays. The original take was that, given the assumption that Mr. Obama does better with that age cohort, he would be hurt in places like Iowa City, home of the University of Iowa, which has just under 30,000 students, if school was out.
But because of the way caucus results are tallied, it might actually be better for Mr. Obama if students are back home (assuming they live in Iowa, and actually go home for winter break) going to caucuses in local communities where support for Mr. Obama might not be so high.
Still, in the end, while all this is being watched with much interest by the campaigns, do not look for it to determine the outcome in Iowa.
“There is a younger vote – and it is a significant segment,” said Mark Penn, the chief strategist for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York. “But the age structure of the Iowa caucus vote is that it is a heavy preponderance of the older voter.”
“I think the Iowa caucuses have never been older than they are now,” said Mr. Penn, who is a pollster. “The median age could be as high as 59.”
Mr. Obama’s campaign manager, David Plouffe, said that while support from young voters was important to Mr. Obama in Iowa and the rest of the country, it was not central. “There is not question that Obama has created enthusiasm among younger voters,” he said. “It’s not just casual interest. It’s real belief and enthusiasm.”
“We absolutely believe there will be more younger votes attending caucuses and voting in primaries because they are motivated by his candidacy,” he said. “But it is not central to our strategy. It is additive to our strategy.”