WEST DES MOINES, Iowa — How important is the youth vote to the Republican party? So important that on Tuesday morning (January 3), two of the leading candidates in tonight's crucial Iowa caucus took time out from their vacuum-packed schedules to address a throng of pumped-up teens at a "Rock the Caucus" event in the gymnasium of Valley High School in West Des Moines.
Although Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann is polling in the single digits and widely expected to have a poor showing at the first-in-the-nation caucus, GOP contenders Ron Paul and former Senator Rick Santorum were close to neck-and-neck for the second-place spot in final polling on Monday. As MTV News found as we headed to Iowa for our Power of 12 campaign, all three caught the attention of voters who are eager to step up for their man/woman.
Thomas Deacon, 21, woke up before 7 a.m. to drive from Lawrence, Kansas, with two of his friends and hold up Ron Paul signs by the side of a busy road on Tuesday morning alongside Kansas City, Missouri, native Elizabeth Bronaugh, 22.
"We're just trying to get awareness about Ron Paul ... and people are pretty receptive to it," said David Megli, 22, who was interrupted by motorists driving by and honking their horns in support. Megli, wearing a knit Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles wool hat to ward off the cold, was a registered libertarian in 2008, but said he switched to the GOP for this election cycle. And, like his friends, he didn't realize you had to be a student to attend the event, so he was stuck outside and was not able to hear Paul speak.
Bronaugh said all four in her group backed libertarian Paul in the 2008 election because they appreciate his stance on civil liberties and small government. And though he's the oldest candidate in the race at 76, Deacon said there's a very good reason that Paul has gotten the attention of young voters.
"He recognizes that if we're doing personal activities that don't harm other people, why should we be punished for that?" said Deacon, alluding to Paul's position on the legalization of drugs and the nearly trillion-dollar cost of the 35-year-plus War on Drugs.
Paul's stances on state's rights, avoiding a military conflict in Iran, smaller government and fewer taxes also appeal to the new generation of voters, Deacon said. "When Obama got elected, a lot of young people supported him because we thought we were going to get change," Deacon said when asked about some of Paul's more controversial policies regarding the elimination of the Dept. of Education and his call for an end to the student loan program."But for the most part it's been the same ... you haven't seen a lot of change," he added, noting that he actually supported Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2008. "Obama seemed like an OK guy and I was excited about the change he was going to bring. There was a real upswell of energy. But I think he really wasted that."
This time, Bronaugh said, Paul is the one who has the same amount of energy and enthusiasm from young voters, but she believes he will follow through on his promises.
Inside the gym, the candidates did their job, with Santorum giving a shout-out to the school's mascot ("go Tigers!") and Paul mentioning that his followers had recently given former "American Idol" Kelly Clarkson a sales bump. Valley student Allie Brown, 17, said she thought it was really cool that the candidates took time out from their final day of campaigning to visit the school.
Brown was interested in Bachmann's pledge to lower the price of gasoline through more oil exploration, an issue that's obviously a big one for teen drivers. "I'm leaning toward Michele Bachmann because I think she's really personable and sincerely cares about the things she's talking about," she said while standing in the school gym and sporting her "Rock the Caucus" T-shirt.
Paul supporter Sulejman Malic, 17, was just blown away by the amount of press coverage at his school, and friend Pallavi Aurora, also 17, said the high-energy spirit of the event was getting her psyched up to vote— for the first time — later in the day for former Massachusetts governor and leading candidate Mitt Romney.
MTV is on the scene in Iowa! Head to Iowa.MTV.com for all our Iowa caucus coverage, and stick with PowerOf12.org throughout the presidential election season to follow Andrew Jenks on the campaign trail.