SESP freshman Josh Bloom and Weinberg sophomore Ellen Howard review the list of houses campaign volunteers assigned them. At the day’s end, Bloom and Howard had knocked on the doors of all but two assigned houses. Photo by Eva Herscowitz / North by Northwestern 

CEDAR RAPIDS — Cram a van with Northwestern students preparing to canvass for Senator Elizabeth Warren, and the conversation is bound to get political. As the 12-seat Ford Transit-350 Passenger Van hurtles down long stretches of highway and passes snow-dusted fields, several topics of interest emerge, including Washington, D.C. statehood, California ballot propositions and The Federalist Papers.

Many of the students are first-time voters, and most have never canvassed before. But the group of freshmen, sophomores and juniors remains committed to political participation; in interviews and throughout the day, students cite “the democratic process” and “civic engagement” as key factors motivating their trip.

The Feb. 2 trip, organized by Northwestern College Democrats and the Warren campaign, brought seven Northwestern students to eastern Iowa to knock on doors, distribute campaign materials and nudge voters to caucus for Warren. The group cancelled a trip to canvass for Senator Bernie Sanders due to scheduling issues and offered to connect students interested in canvassing for former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg or former Vice President Joe Biden with campaign organizers.

Today at 7 p.m., registered Democratic voters in Iowa’s 1,678 precincts and 87 satellite caucuses will elect precinct delegates. The precinct results indicate state delegate equivalents, which are used to calculate the number of national delegates each candidate receives. The candidate who earns the most delegates wins the presidential primary’s first major contest, and, experts say, will shape the course of the primary by and large.

The van prepares to turn off to Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Seven Northwestern students traveled to the state to canvass for Senator Elizabeth Warren Feb. 2, meeting outside Allison Dining Hall at 7:40 a.m. and returning to Evanston’s Warren campaign office around 9:45 p.m. Photo by Eva Herscowitz / North by Northwestern

As the van rolled by Walcott’s Iowa 80 – the world’s largest truck stop – McCormick freshman Johanna Kann said she didn’t know what to expect. Since the 2016 election, she said she’s prioritized political participation, and canvassing in Iowa links her directly to the political process. Volunteers inundate Iowa, but she said she recognizes the state’s significance.  

“They must have a lot of bombardment,” she said. “They’re wooed by so many people. But, you know what? It’s exciting. Iowa is a determining point for the rest of the primaries.“

Earlier in the day, the group assembled at Warren’s Evanston campaign office. Posing in front of a mint green mural reading “HOPE AND COURAGE,” a staffer led the students in a cheer: “When I say dream big, you say fight hard!”

It’s Sunday at 8:30 a.m. four weeks into winter quarter, but the students responded with gusto.

* * *

Rates of youth voting and political engagement have risen since the 2016 election. A record-high 28% of young people voted in the 2018 midterms, as compared to the 13% of young people voting in 2014. That trend appears consistent with voting patterns projected in the 2020 presidential election: More than a third of eligible Iowa voters between the ages of 18 and 29 said they were “extremely likely” to participate in today’s caucus.

Beyond voting patterns, young people are becoming increasingly politically engaged – and increasingly left-leaning. Forty-six percent believe they can have at least a moderate effect on government, and young people, especially young people of color, overwhelmingly prefer Democratic candidates.  

Weinberg junior Adam Downing said the trip exemplifies youth political engagement.

“It’s a really good opportunity to be out here and actually impact the election in a really substantial way,” Downing said. “It’s one thing to be on our campuses all across the country and talk about these issues. It’s an entire other thing to be knocking on the doors of the very people who are going to be there and make democracy happen.”

At 1 p.m., blue skies and 45 degree weather welcomed the students to the Cedar Rapids suburbs. The group filed into a beige house, which functions as a staging site for the many Warren volunteers visiting Cedar Rapids (presidential campaigns held 7,000 events in Iowa in October alone).

Festive decorations and plants welcome the students to a Warren campaign staging site, which is located in a house in the Cedar Rapids suburbs. Precinct captain Sheila Johnson, who led the group in canvassing training, said the most important part of canvassing is “being authentic.” Photo by Eva Herscowitz / North by Northwestern

In a mint green room cluttered with hanging plants and colorful paintings, precinct captain Sheila Johnson details the canvassing process. They must determine if voters lean Warren, consider her a second choice or remain undecided, and help prospective Warren voters make a plan for caucus night. How will they make it to McKinley STEAM Academy – the site of the caucus for precinct CR26 – by 6:30 p.m.? Who will drive them? Who will watch their kids? For every hiccup, Johnson has a plan. Neighbors have volunteered to organize carpools, and the downtown campaign office will function as a temporary child care center staffed by high school seniors.

Natalie Knapp, a high school senior and precinct captain for CR14, makes 20 to 30 calls a day to voters in her precinct, as well as frequents the neighborhood knocking on doors. Tonight, she will don a “precinct captain” shirt, signing in caucus-goers, holding up signs and attempting to persuade Iowa Democrats to caucus for Warren.

“They like to call me an organizer that just doesn’t get paid as an organizer because I’m there so much,” she said.  

She fell into politics accidentally – an organizer misdialed and Knapp answered (“She thought my name was Mario and I was some old guy,” said Knapp of the phone call). Coffee with the organizer persuaded Knapp to give door knocking a try.

Warren’s progressive policies and background as a special education teacher – Knapp hopes to work as a speech pathologist for students with disabilities – drew her to the candidate. Young people, she said, are instrumental in securing a Democratic victory.

“You guys aren’t the first bus of college students that we’ve had come out,” she said. “We have all these young people coming to Iowa just to knock on doors because they want to have a voice. They want their candidate to represent them. They’re the people that are going to make the change and get Donald Trump out of office.”

* * *

As they bounced between houses in precinct CR26, SESP freshman Josh Bloom and Weinberg sophomore Ellen Howard got off to a slow start. The pair, equipped with a list of addresses, began by rehearsing their stump speech, with Howard asking registered voters “if they’ll pledge their support for Warren in tomorrow’s caucus” and Bloom emphasizing the candidate’s pragmatism. The first three voters don’t come to the door.

Ascending the fourth house’s steps, Bloom reflects on door knocking.

“It’s like Halloween for adults, except there’s no candy and it’s during the day,” he said.  

The first voter, a gray-haired man in his 50s, confirms he’s both a) caucusing for Warren and b) arranging a transportation plan – the day’s first success.

That’s when things start to pick up.

On wide streets dotted with puddles and parked cars, Bloom and Howard meet an array of Democrats: Biden devotees, several supporters of Senator Amy Klobuchar, a felon barred from the electoral process and a husband bickering with his wife over the merits of Sanders versus Warren.

By the day’s end, they had hit all houses but two. When voters didn’t come to the door, they placed hangers emblazoned with a Warren’s smiling face on doorknobs. And their stump speeches, after much practice, became fine-tuned.

Howard waits for a voter to answer the door. After speaking with prospective caucus-goers, the students record whether the voters lean Warren, consider her a second choice or remain undecided. Photo by Eva Herscowitz / North by Northwestern

But the day didn’t come without bumps. Before slamming her door, one woman said she “can’t stand” Warren; another said she’s too elderly to make it to McKinley. But Howard said every attempted connection holds value.

“I don’t think every person we talk to we’re going to convince, or even convince them that they should pick Warren as a second choice, or even that they should caucus,” she said. “But I do feel like if we go to enough houses and we have enough of these conversations, a fraction of them will help.”

* * *

Earlier in the day, after students peppered Johnson with questions about the canvassing process, she said she’s noticed an uptick in young people like Kann, Downing, Bloom, Howard and others on the trip participating in politics.

In the other room, students ate brownies, bagels and granola bars provided by staging office volunteers. They laughed and chatted, and they pocketed pens to bring with them for the day.

“Everyday feels like we’re on the brink of some sort of catastrophe,” Johnson said. “The urgency is what’s really energizing the young people. Nobody else is going to do anything if they don’t.”