First time voters may hold key to 2008

Hattie Irving, an 81-year old Iowan, has never participated in her state’s presidential caucuses, but she plans to this time — to support Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“I was very impressed with her as first lady. I think it’s important to take part,” Irving said at a Clinton campaign event at a senior center here.

Brad Smith, a 27-year old engineer who moved to the state in 2005, plans to attend his first precinct caucus, too — and stand up for Barack Obama.

“The caucuses were intimidating to me when I came here — I didn’t really know what the word meant,” he said. “But regardless of how difficult or confusing it is, I feel like I need to take action.”

As the Democratic front-runners compete with John Edwards to win the state’s Jan. 3 contest, Clinton and Obama are counting on thousands of first-time caucus goers to show up.

Hers are grayer and generally female. His tend to be younger and male.

Experts say gambling on either group is risky.

“Many candidates over the years have said they’ll bring in more young people and more women to the caucuses. Virtually all of those efforts have been failures,” said Hugh Winebrenner, an emeritus professor and caucus historian at Iowa’s Drake University. “No matter how much hoopla surrounds the caucuses, the people who show up tend to be the party regulars.”

Strategists for Clinton and Obama are working hard to dispel that notion. They say older women will turn out to help elect the first female president, that young folks will show up for the young man who’s energized their political interest.

They also concede that Edwards’ strength among experienced caucus goers gives him a significant leg up. He’s been working hard at this in Iowa since the 2004 campaign.

Edwards is trying to bring in new voters, too. Recent events featuring singers Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne were designed to bring in Iowans who might not show up for a routine political rally.

The caucuses do attract plenty of newcomers each year, but candidates who rely on them have typically done so at their peril. The most prominent example is Howard Dean, who came in a distant third in 2004 after his promise to bring in new supporters fell disastrously short.

While both Clinton and Obama are attracting new faces, the demographics could favor Clinton: 57 percent of caucus goers in 2004 were over 55, while just 11 percent were younger than 34. Women 55 and older were half of those who turned out, while men under 50 were just 18 percent.

Even so, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, Steve Hildebrand, believes young people are among the Illinois senator’s most motivated supporters.

“Young voters were the ones drafting Obama to run for president last year, and we saw his ability to inspire them,” Hildebrand said. “We say to them, ‘You know all those pundits and prognosticators who say you don’t vote? You need to prove them wrong.'”

To stay in touch with them, the campaign is using social networking Web sights like Facebook as well as one-on-one meetings and gatherings at schools and coffee shops.

The campaign has mounted an unprecedented effort to organize high school students, who are permitted to caucus if they’ll turn 18 before the general election next November.

Clinton organizers estimate some 70 percent of her caucus goers will be women, most of whom are middle-aged or older and an untold number who are new to the caucus process. The campaign has even compiled a list of more than 600 likely female caucus attendees who are over 90 years old — born before women won the right to vote in 1920.

Its universe of elderly newcomers presents a host of challenges to the Clinton team. Organizers are praying for good weather on caucus night, since older people are less likely to venture outside in the teeth of a snow or ice storm.

The campaign is also offering rides to thousands of supporters, and making sure older women are escorted by a friend or neighbor rather than a stranger.

But just as product advertising experts tend to ignore older consumers because they rarely adopt new behaviors, so it is with older Iowans who haven’t caucused in the past. Skeptics like Drake University’s Winebrenner doubt many senior citizens will actually attend the caucus if they haven’t showed interest in a lifetime of living in the state.

“I really don’t see Hillary bringing in all these old ladies,” he said.

To that, Clinton strategists have a ready answer: They’ll come because they are eager to help elect the first woman president.

“Every day we meet more and more women who have never caucused before, but are excited and energized by the historic nature of her candidacy and message of change. They are a major reason we expect to do well caucus night,” spokesman Mo Elleithee said.