Last updated: December 14 2007
Volume 124, Issue 12 [Download PDF]
News Column
Clinton confusion on student voting needs to end
by Julia Bottles

In a race that becomes tighter as the clock counting down to the Iowa Democratic Caucus ticks away, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are trying to maximize their supporters. With Obama receiving strong support from college students, the Clinton campaign has made muddled statements about out-of-state participation in the caucus, at times suggesting that those students should not caucus while elsewhere striking a softer tone.

Sen. Clinton attacked Obama's campaign earlier in the month for encouraging students who do not claim permanent residence in Iowa to vote in the state. During a speech in Clear Lake, Iowa, Senator Clinton stated that the caucus "is a process for Iowans. This needs to be all about Iowa, and people who live here, people who pay taxes here."

Enraged by these exclusionary statements, young bloggers took up the cause of student voters in protest to the senator's statement. Their point? That students attending schools in Iowa are, in fact, legally eligible to vote in the state where they spend nine months of the year. They should take full advantage of this opportunity to participate in the political process. Therefore, Obama's encouragement of student to "come back for the Iowa caucuses and caucus in your neighborhood" is both legal and ethical.

Realizing that the backlash against Sen. Clinton's comments could potentially harm her standing with the thousands of caucus-going students, her campaign quickly backtracked. In a statement e-mailed to the blog Future Majority, the campaign stated, "The Iowa caucus is so special because it is based on Iowa values. We believe that every Iowan and every student who is eligible to caucus should do so and we hope they do."

The campaign was right in going one step further and encouraging these students to take part in the political process. Simply recognizing the legal right of college students to caucus in Iowa, the state where they live and work, is not enough.

Head of Grinnell's Campus Democrats Alec Schierenbeck '09 commented on the issue of college students voting in Iowa, remarking that recent residents and retirees are not discouraged from caucusing. "There seems to be some double standard for young people," he said. "We don't have a youth over-engagement problem in this country. We have an under-engagement problem."

Despite the Clinton campaign's new stance on college voters that appears to encourage participation in the political process, other staffers and surrogates have sent out conflicting messages.

At Monday's speech in Darby Gym, it became apparent that former President Bill Clinton, the senator's husband, views the caucus process a little differently than the all-inclusive retraction sent to Future Majority. In response to a question posed by Mikel Shybut '10, the former president said, "Historically, the Iowa culture has been that the caucus should just be for Iowans because it's not an election."

In explaining Sen. Clinton's earlier stance on the issue, he brought up the possibility that students claiming residency in both Iowa and their home state could vote in both places as a potential issue. "I think that what she didn't want to be seen doing," he reflected, "is encouraging people to come in from out of state to try to register on the same day registration here. I think what you have to do is search your conscience and ask yourself this: if you vote in the Iowa Caucus, will you vote here in November 2008?"

While it is true that President Clinton reminded students of their legal right to caucus in Iowa even if their permanent residence is out of state, he dressed up his answer in an uncomfortable, ethical garb, complicating the issue by later calling it "a matter of conscience." In this respect, the former president dropped a valuable opportunity to encourage an enthusiastic group of students to participate in the political process.

Since he began traveling as a surrogate speaker for Sen. Clinton, Pres. Clinton's statements have been under careful scrutiny by journalists and alike. Some accuse him of rewriting history with regards to his initial reaction to the United States entering Iraq.

One can be a little understanding and excuse a surrogate from making remarks that are a little ideologically off-base from the greater campaign. However, the problem extends to senior Clinton staff members.

Sen. Clinton's senior pollster and strategist for the campaign, Mark Penn, commented on the hubbub surrounding the college voting issue at the Des Moines Register Democratic Debate on Thursday, conceding that, "The rules are the rules in terms of who can participate. You cannot participate in a caucus and then later in the year vote somewhere else. The rules are the rules."

Yet again Penn failed to evoke the enthusiasm and encouragement highlighted in the statement to Future Majority. Instead, he stirred up memories of Des Moines Register political columnist David Yepsen's sharp criticism of students attempting to caucus: "I think you've seen some columns here, particularly by David Yepsen," Penn said. "Some Iowans say that maybe that's not the right thing to do to bring people into caucus." He left the comment hanging, failing to exempt the students who are legally allowed to vote in the state.

President Clinton and Penn's joint failure to recognize the necessity of engaging college students in a process that is within their full legal rights without framing it as a loaded ethical issue should concern students who wish to utilize their Iowa residency to vote. Their claim to vote is legitimate, legal and important.

Schierenbeck summed up the argument for supporting Iowa's college students. "It is an Iowa process, and they are a part of Iowa right now and they should caucus," Schierenbeck said.

Thus, in these last weeks before the Iowa Democratic Caucus, the Clinton camp must iron out their message and come up with a unified statement regarding college voters. To not do so will not only isolate them from the highly sought-after young voting base but will also paint Sen. Clinton's campaign as disorganized and fractured. At this point in the race for the nomination, no campaign can afford to show any signs of cracking.