Mike JuntunenIOWA CITY, Iowa, 11:33 a.m. — Mike Juntunen didn’t go home for Christmas. No, the 26-year-old University of Iowa freshman was busy spreading his own version of holiday cheer — the message of former North Carolina Senator John Edwards.

Juntunen is co-president of the University of Iowa Hawkeyes for John Edwards, which is responsible in part for marshaling Edwards’ student forces in the Iowa City/Johnson County area and doing outreach to surrounding rural counties. He’s optimistic about the former senator’s chances on Thursday night.

“A straight-up tie really means John Edwards wins Iowa by three or four points because that’s the proportion of the second-place votes we’re going to win,” he predicts.

Juntunen — a Michigan native who hails from the stark, cold spar of land extending into Lake Superior that is known as Michigan’s “Upper Peninsula” — thinks pundits and the media are overblowing the effect the so-called “youth vote” will have on this year’s caucus. And on one level, it’s hard to disagree with him. The Iowa caucuses are like the electoral college, in a sense: It doesn’t matter if you have incredibly deep support in one town or county — you need to have broad appeal. In Iowa City’s Johnson County, for example, students primarily reside in seven precincts that together account for just over 30 delegates. Johnson county has 284 total delegates.

“If all the students came back [from winter break] and Obama carried all those precincts, that would pick them up maybe 10 percent of the county,” Juntunen estimates. “Now this is a big county — it’s the third-biggest county in the state — but this strategy only works if your supporters are spread all over the state. If they all live in one town or precinct, their impact is blunted.”

That broad appeal is what Edwards is counting on to pull him up to first or second place on Thursday. Juntunen said that in rural counties with only one or two delegates, Edwards has an opportunity to pick up extra delegates without also ceding ground to candidates like Obama and Clinton. In smaller precincts with only one or two delegates — as is the case in rural counties across Iowa where Edwards’ support is strong — the caucus can generate a winner-take-all scenario where a majority earns the winning candidate the sole state convention delegate from that precinct.

By contrast, in larger precincts the caucus tallies divvy up state delegates based on the ratio of different candidates’ levels of support. For example, a 50-30-20 split might break up a fairly large, six-delegate precinct in two-two-two or three-two-one fashion. That chance to shut out other candidates is what Edwards is counting on.

The University of Iowa plays home to about 28,000 undergraduates, whom Juntunen described as “moderately active.” Like any community, though, generalities can be deceiving. The campus has its pockets of activity and its pockets of apathy. When a potential city ordinance threatened to restrict bar entrance to students ages 21 and over, campus political groups registered 5,000 new voters to defeat the ban by a 3,300-vote margin. Still, Juntunen asks, only 5,000 new on-campus voters to

defend a college kid’s right to a can of beer?

It’s coming down to an exhausting finish now for Juntunen and other college students volunteering for Edwards in Iowa. When the candidate himself is willing to campaign 36 straight hours and visit 38 counties in eight days, as Edwards did earlier this week, it sets the bar high for campaign participation. Juntunen says he’s been operating on five hours of sleep a night this last week, although he slept in on New Year’s Day — eight hours.

Juntunen will go home shortly after caucus night – “The night people like me actually change peoples’ minds” – and drive eight hours to get home. And have Christmas.

-Zack Abrahamson