How do a bunch of over-the-hill presidential candidates appeal to young voters?
In an attempt to lure Iowa's newest voters in advance of Tuesday's caucuses, Republican candidates today took a broad range of tactics: talking about their smartphones, sending younger emissaries and invoking Kelly Clarkson.
At a "Rock the Caucus" event (sponsored by Rock the Vote) at Valley High School in West Des Moines Tuesday, Michele Bachmann, Rick Santorum, and Ron Paul—along with four of Mitt Romney's five sons—made 11th-hour pushes to a gymnasium of roughly 800 high school seniors.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann faced the unenviable task of warming up a room of 17- and 18-year-olds returning from their holiday breaks. She made economic pitches seemingly designed to resonate with the youngest voters before pitching her corporate-tax-cutting ideas.
Bachmann appealed to the teens' self-interest by explaning that when she was their age, she wanted to ensure she would have a job and home after finishing school.
"I think that one thing that almost everyone here would say is they want to make sure they make a lot of money when they get out of school...how many of you want to do that?" she asked, to scattered applause and shouts.
"How many of you want to grow up to be Steve Jobs?" she continued. "I brought something with me. This is my iPhone," she said, holding up her phone. "Any of you got one? We love these things! Imagine living without these things anymore! When I was in high school, our phones were wired into the walls, and you never made a long-distance phone call because it was too expensive."
Following Bachmann were four of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's five sons, making a case for their father. Tagg Romney illustrated his father's frugality (and stubbornness) by telling a story from his teenage years. He explained that rather than pay what he considered to be an exorbitant contractor fee, Mitt Romney and his sons spent six Saturdays building a fence around the family home.
"My dad is extraordinarily cheap," said Tagg Romney, but added that his father's motives also included his deep devotion to his family.
Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum stressed what he considers to be the dangerous implications of high national debt. "It will crush your pocketbook in the future," Santorum said. He also made a point of saying that as a senator he tried to talk to and meet with young voters as often as he could.
Batting cleanup was Ron Paul, who received the most positive response judging by the decibel level. Paul is notably popular among young voters, and the crowd at Valley treated him to loud applause when he took the stage, after his speech, and again as he left.
Paul led off by referencing pop music star Kelly Clarkson, who endorsed him last week. "I didn't know a whole lot about her, but I do know that our supporters were so enthusiastic about it they went out and bumped up her sales of her records by 600 percent," Paul said.
One of the students' strongest reactions to Paul came when he touted his antiwar message. "There's no reason in the world that we cannot be strict constitutionalists … in saying that we should not send young people off to war unless it's absolutely necessary for our national security, and a declaration of war is made," Paul says. "Make the declaration, fight the war, win it, get it over, and come home.
Sulejman Malich, 17, is clearly excited about caucusing for the first time. He donned a t-shirt with the message "Iowa 2012: Rock Out with Your Caucus Out" to Tuesday's assembly, and said that he plans to caucus for Ron Paul. For him, Paul's unchanging message is attractive: "He's been the most consistent and has avoided the b.s."
But there are plenty of reasons why young people flock to the Texas libertarian. To one reporter's question about why youth postively respond to Paul, one teen yelled, "Marijuana! I'm not joking!" Paul and Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank introduced a bill in 2011 that proposed states be allowed to set their own marijuana laws.
Parker Dilley, 18, says his peers are excited to hear politicians even addressing the topic of marijuana.
"Kids don't normally hear adults talk about it, so they like to hear adults talk about it in a positive way," says Dilley.
Despite the resounding cheers for Paul, the students' political views cover a wide spectrum. Stephen Davick, 18, considers himself an Independent and plans to vote for Obama in November. He considers the Republican field "really weak."
"There's not a lot of outstanding [Republican] candidates," said Davick.
Like many other Iowans, more than a few of Valley's seniors claimed they were undecided, including 17-year-old Taylor Hoffman. Hoffman considers herself a "strong-leaning independent" in the conservative direction, and for her, the top issues are the same as many in her parents' generation: taxes and government spending.
Still, she says she doesn't get her views from her parents. "I don't really talk politics with them. I just know they're dissatisfied."