DES MOINES, Iowa (Reuters) - A clash between Christmas vacations and the U.S. election calendar has left presidential campaigns in Iowa struggling with a shortage of student volunteers to call voters, distribute pamphlets and drive people to the polls.
The first-in-the-nation nominating caucuses are on January 3, the earliest ever, meaning that many students have gone home for the holidays just as candidates seek to ramp up their vote drive in the final days before the crucial contest.
That hasn’t stopped campaigns, which rely heavily on students’ enthusiasm and free labor, from trying to persuade many to drop their holiday plans for the cause of winning over undecided voters.
“We’ll capture the enthusiasm that would have been on campus and will have them apply it in their home towns,” said Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, who had been leading in the state until recently.
“As far as out-of-state students, we will take any and all who want to come here to volunteer for the caucuses,” he said.
In the Reuters/Zogby national poll released last week, Republican Rudy Giuliani and Democrat Barack Obama led among voters aged 18-29. But Romney led among younger voters in Iowa, according to a late November Des Moines Register poll.
Romney has lost his overall lead in Iowa in recent weeks to former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Iowa kicks off the state-by-state nominating contests which culminates with the November 4, 2008 general election.
Turnout is key in the Midwestern state because voters do not simply go into a voting booth and pick a candidate. They must instead attend meetings in their neighborhoods to caucus for their candidate.
The state permits students who go to universities and colleges in the state to participate in the caucuses as long as they are 18 years old by the time of the November election and are registered to vote.
Among Democrats in Iowa, Obama had a commanding lead among those under the age of 35, according to the Des Moines Register poll. He led 48 percent to 19 percent for New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, and 17 percent for former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards.
“We have a strong field organization and dedicated staff and volunteers, so we’ve planned and organized to navigate the holiday schedule,” said Colleen Murray, a spokeswoman for Edwards.
“We have made sure those who did travel will be able to get back to work to help us in the final days leading up to the caucuses,” she said.
Grinnell College, a private liberal arts school whose students are on winter break until January 21, agreed to open its athletics facility to about 140 students so they could participate on January 3 and have a place to sleep.
“The college chose to make these special arrangements so Grinnell students can participate because Grinnell students are very active,” said Cindy Deppe, Grinnell’s director of media relations.
The head of the University of Iowa Democrats said he had commitments from 10 to 15 members to spend part of their winter break calling and e-mailing reminders to some 4,000 college students who had signed cards pledging to participate in the caucuses.
“In terms of our organization, we’re a little bit in a tough position because it’s over break,” said Atul Nakhasi, head of the university organization. Still, “we’re seeing massive commitments by students, not just to vote but to work for these campaigns.”
Editing by Stuart Grudgings