They turned out in record numbers, filling churches and community centers and elementary schools named after Warren G. Harding, confounding pundits and busting the 2008 race for the White House wide open.
More than 65,000 Iowa voters under the age of 30 took part in Thursday's Democratic and Republican caucuses, three times the amount that turned out for the 2004 caucus, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. The majority of those under-30 voters were participating in the caucus for the first time, and the number who voted Democrat — more than 52,000 — made up 22 percent of the party's total vote, about twice as many as typically take part in caucuses.
It was a turnout that surprised most, and one that carried significant weight. Young caucus-goers supported both winners — Democratic Senator Barack Obama and Republican Governor Mike Huckabee — by the largest margins of any age group: 57 percent for Obama, and 40 percent for Huckabee, according to CNN entrance polls.
"Tonight was like something we hadn't seen before. ... I couldn't pick a better outcome in the fact that young people turned out in record numbers," Heather Smith, the executive director of Rock the Vote, told MTV News. "Young people are more engaged in politics right now. There are a lot of issues that affect us, that we want attention paid to, and there are also candidates that are reaching out and courting the young voters."
The process of caucusing in Iowa is a fabulously complicated one (here's an explanation), but unlike other states with traditional primary systems — like New Hampshire — supporters for the candidates entered each of the state's 1,785 caucus precincts, gathered in preference groups and attempted to sway undecided voters to join them. It's a hands-on, Democracy-in-action process, and one that only added to the, well, action most first-time caucus-goers witnessed last night.
"It was a little nerve-racking. There was a lot of old people at the middle school, and they were yelling for Edwards, and I was getting a little upset. I was like, 'Obama!' " Justyn Smith, a 17-year old who participated in his first caucus, laughed. "It's exciting. ... After it was done, I called down to the precinct, and they were jumping around on the phone, and I was jumping around on the phone. My mom was going crazy. It was great."
And when the precincts closed, and the unlikely winners were declared, young voters who had caucused for them — calling undecided voters, canvassing neighborhoods — felt a special kind of elation. Because not only had they shattered turnout records, they felt (rightfully so) like they had made history. And they'd like to see history repeat itself at each step of the campaign.
"We made a lot of phone calls and knocked on a ton of doors. We really focused on high schools and getting people excited about politics in general," Gracie Swanson, a first-time caucus-goer, told MTV News. "They had this idea that politics are boring, and we wanted to make sure that they knew that it can be exciting. I think that winning Iowa gives Obama a really big boost, and it only helps his chances of winning other states and getting the national nomination."
"It's really amazing to see the youth get involved, because I think in past campaigns, I think the youth were scared to share their opinions," Swanson added. "The last time it came around, I was a little young, so I didn't get wrapped up in it, but it's really amazing to watch all these people working together — even if there might be friendly competition between the candidates, it's a lot of fun to see everyone working so hard."