IOWA CITY, Iowa, 4:33 p.m. — “It’s hard to believe it’s all going to be over tomorrow,” says 19-year-old Atul Nakhasi from behind a laptop and scattered piles of paper. He’s trying to figure out in the next two hours how to run a caucus in Iowa’s largest student precinct – precinct 5 of Iowa City. “I’m kind of going to miss it.”
Who wouldn’t? At the center of a political storm that has brought reporters from every corner of the globe to his doorstep, this University of Iowa junior has worked tirelessly over the past year to transform a once-defunct organization of part-time student politicians into what he hopes will become a dynamic political force with the ability to lend formidable support to a Democratic presidential candidate — whoever that may be — in November. The first true test of his success comes in less than three hours, when students across Iowa now on vacation — at home in towns like Waterloo, Cedar Rapids, and Mason City — go caucus.
“It’s just a hobby,” the biology major says demurely. “[Secretary John Mulrooney] and I both have med school coming up. But this is more important — I’m perfectly willing to miss a few biology lectures to participate in the Iowa caucus.”
But as Mulrooney says, it’s an intricate balance — finding the time to study amid the chaos of knocking doors, making phone calls, and hosting candidates’ events on-campus.
By most measures, their efforts to revive the University of Iowa Democrats have been successful. In 2004, the group’s president caused a rift within the group by publicly endorsing John Kerry for president, breaking the group’s tradition of withholding endorsements until after a nominee had been selected. Until Nakhasi and Mulrooney picked up the pieces, the University Democrats paled in size and organizational capabilities to the regimented University Republicans, led by Greg Baker. Now Nakhasi points to 1200 names on the group’s electronic list-serve, meetings with all the major Democratic candidates, and the largest student precinct in the state of Iowa as signs of revitalization.
“In 2004, six percent of Iowans caucused,” Nakhasi says. “And of course, the student count has always been much lower. If we can match that figure or even beat it – that would be a success.”
But can he? Of the 1200 names on Nakhasi’s list-serve, he estimates about forty to sixty students show up regularly to University Democrat meetings — a figure that estimates an involved student core of 3-5% out of an already interested sample population. Obama’s field staff told Nakhasi to expect somewhere upwards of 200 supporters for the Illinois Senator, a figure of which Nakhasi is somewhat skeptical.
The timing of the caucus is unfortunate and Nakhasi says that regardless of what happens tonight, he’s already focused generating student interest in the general election in November.
“Our goal is to get as many students as possible to unite behind a Democratic presidential candidate,” he says. “And get that person in the White House.”