CIRCLE (The Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement)
conducts research on the civic and political engagement of young Americans.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement

Youth in Politics: On the Ground in the Hawkeye State

February 1st, 2016
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When it comes to understanding youth political engagement, it’s critical to look at both data and dynamics on the ground. As a result, to supplement CIRCLE’s primary and caucus analyses, we are also asking practitioners to provide reflections on their work with youth in a given state. These reflections come from different types of organizations—from news media, to schools, to nonprofits— since building sustainable opportunities for youth engagement requires engagement from multiple sectors using multiple strategies.

Below are reflections from those who worked to engage youth in the 2016 Iowa caucuses. While they reflect their perspectives and experiences, not necessarily those of CIRCLE, we want to highlight the important work being done to include young people in the decisions we make as a nation.

Iowa Dept. of Education | Iowa LULAC | The Des Moines Register | Mikva Challenge | NextGen Climate


Stefanie Wager, Social Studies Consultant, Iowa Department of Education

The Iowa caucuses play an important role on the national scene, but often Iowa students, and even adults, struggle to understand a very basic question: What are the caucuses and why do they matter? To help students learn about the caucuses, the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office reached out to the Iowa Department of Education to create a curriculum entitled Caucus 101 (see The curriculum includes seven days of lesson plans ranging from the history of the caucuses to how to conduct a mock caucus. Teachers can download 30, 60, or 90 minute lessons that include several resources such as videos, links to articles, PowerPoints, etc.

As an outgrowth of the curriculum, the Secretary of State’s Office organized mock caucuses and a straw poll for students across the state. The Iowa Department of Education worked to publicize these and promote student participation in them. The turnout was tremendous.  Over 60,000 Iowa students voted in the straw poll, for example.  Teachers have reported that this has been a helpful tool for their own learning and to better connect the Iowa caucuses to the general teaching of elections and the voting process.

Moving forward, we plan on continuing to work together to strengthen civic knowledge and engagement within the state of Iowa.


Iowa League of United Latin American Citizens

The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) of Iowa launched the Latino Vote Iowa caucus campaign project in October 2015 to educate and engage the Latino community to participate in the Iowa Caucuses. The campaign consisted of caucus trainings that took place across the state, as well as mailings, door-to-door neighborhood canvassing, and phone calls to the 50,000 registered Latino voters in the state. The fastest-growing sector of the Latino population is its youth, so campaign staff wanted to reach out to eligible-age prospective caucus-goers.

The Latino Vote Iowa campaign held trainings for Latino youth in high school and college. During the weeks leading up to the Feb. 1 caucuses, LULAC created a partnership with Des Moines Public Schools, the largest school system in the state of Iowa, for campaign members to meet with about 600 high school students in the district’s five high schools. Twenty-five percent of the student body is Hispanic. The relationship was crucial in that it inspired all students, not just Latinos, to become engaged in the political process. Campaign staff explained to students the power they could have in the political process and in selecting the nation’s next president. Latino Vote Iowa Political Director Christian Ucles shared his experiences of first caucusing as a 17-year-old student. He educated students about the caucuses, explained how they work in each political party, and then held a mock caucus with students.

LULAC received positive responses from the students we met— college-age students worked on the caucus campaign, and high school students inquired as to how they could register to vote and become involved with the precinct on caucus night. Our hope is these students feel inspired by the stories they heard of youth making a difference and that their participation on caucus night is only the beginning of them exercising their political voice.


Amalie Nash, VP for News and Engagement, The Des Moines Register

The Des Moines Register, fueled by a Knight News Challenge prototype grant, took a two-pronged approach to reaching younger voters in advance of the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 1. These initiatives were designed to spark interest in a typically underrepresented group of voters and to give voice to younger Iowans who don’t always see their perspectives reflected in traditional media.

“Give a Damn, Des Moines”: The Register and Des Moines Social Club partnered for a unique series of events to spark voter registration and teach first-time caucus-goers the process. The series included a get-out-the-vote party, two mock caucuses, a discussion between the state’s party chairs and a politically themed fashion show. The events, which attracted hundreds, were popular because of their approach. For example, the mock caucus to teach the Democratic caucus process had participants caucusing for their favorite Iowa brewery in a festive atmosphere that that was both fun and educational. The concept also will live on, with future events to inspire involvement in state and local politics.

“Our Caucus”: The Register sought to find young Iowans with varied perspectives to chronicle their personal journey toward picking a candidate and ultimately caucusing. Twelve Iowans were selected from among the applicants, representing different political affiliations, backgrounds, and viewpoints. Their work— stories, videos and photos— were published on Medium and also on the Register’s platforms.

I think the key to engaging with a younger demographic is to have a unique hook and to make sure you’re speaking to the issues they care about. Another important component was partnering with an organization— the Des Moines Social Club— that already reaches and has the respect of that audience.


Mikva Challenge

From January 14-17, Mikva Challenge took 120 youth from Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Southern California to Des Moines, IA to pull back the curtain on what a presidential campaign entails and to give students a chance to campaign for various candidates in the lead up to the Iowa caucuses. Students were broken up into groups, and over the course of the weekend each group tried to accrue as many different experiences as possible: visiting different candidates’ offices and talking with staff, door-knocking, phone-banking, attending rallies and town halls with candidates themselves, and ultimately all attending an issues summit together at which they had the opportunity to caucus for different issues they hope candidates will address in 2016. We also asked students to participate in a digital scavenger hunt all weekend to encourage them to share their experiences via social media; hundreds of their enthusiastic posts can be found at and

This was the 5th presidential primary cycle that Mikva Challenge has run such a trip, and like in past years the impacts were numerous and life changing for all involved. The campaigns were profuse in their thanks, describing students as “fantastic and such a big help at each of the staging locations they went to.” Teachers who chaperoned the trip reported that they loved watching their students and came away feeling energized themselves. The greatest impacts, however, were of course felt by the students themselves. “I learned that as a 17-year-old I can do something to influence candidates for the presidency,” One student wrote afterward. Regardless of whether they were assigned to a candidate they initially supported, students reported appreciating the opportunity to learn more about their positions and to meet other volunteers who did support those candidates. Perhaps most importantly, many youth reported that their biggest takeaway was the discovery that they are not alone in caring about their communities, issues and politics— that there are other youth like them and that together they feel empowered to work together to make the change they seek, both in this election cycle and moving forward. One student summed it up best when she wrote on the way home: “I am going to look for ways to get involved and also gain more knowledge about the issues in my community and how they can be improved.”


NextGen Climate

During the lead up to the Iowa caucuses, NextGen Climate worked to engage voters by seeking pledges to vote for candidates that support clean energy. NextGen Climate, an organization that works to bring climate change and clean energy to the forefront of American politics, created a robust field program, sophisticated paid media campaigns, fun and unique campus events. Over a third of the 30,000 Iowans who pledged are under the age of 35; Next Gen Climate worked on promoting caucus participation on 20+ college campuses in Iowa. NextGen Climate is also providing prospective caucus-goers with information on where their caucus location is, and an opportunity to make a social media shareable for a Democratic candidate with a quote about why.

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