DES MOINES, Iowa, 2:30 a.m. — In the wee hours of the morning of Iowa’s “First in the Nation” caucuses, all eyes are on the Midwestern state and its voters — some old and seasoned, some college freshmen.

Tonight could make or break the political will of a generation.

If college students around Iowa decide that this is actually the year — as they have been saying for months — that youth make change, expect to see a massive increase in voter participation. And a crushing victory for the Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

But that’s a big “if.”

Thousands of students who go to school in Iowa don’t live in the state and, since the primaries came early this year, many are still on winter break. It’s anyone’s guess whether or not they’ll return to vote in large numbers.

It’s all on the line.

Somewhere between 125,000 and 180,000 Iowans — depending on who you talk to — will crown front runners tomorrow night in the Republican and Democratic presidential-nominating contests, gifting them a formidable surge of media glitz and hagiographic punditry going into the New Hampshire primary and a slew of newcomers to the early primary mix — Michigan, Nevada, Wyoming.

And what’s more is that the state that killed Howard Dean in 2004, ignored Bill Clinton in 1992, and spat in the face of Edmund Muskie in 1972, probably still has one or two surprises rolled up its sleeves.

That’s because this is the Iowa Caucus: an uneven, unpredictable and inscrutable process of electioneering that has been called “medieval,” “arcane,” and any number of names in the mainstream medialeading up to today. In roughly fifteen hours, Iowans around the state will drive to the local school gym, a fire station’s garage or a neighbor’s house to stand in exclusive groups and publicly declare their allegiance to a single candidate.

There is nothing private about it; there will be no secret ballots in Des Moines tomorrow.

And when the reports start coming back into Des Moines, who knows?

Maybe Chris Dodd will leapfrog into fourth-place and stay alive. Maybe Ron Paul’s Internet campaign will collapse and Rudy won’t flounder entirely. Maybe students will come out in droves to support a certain Illinois senator preaching hope and change.

The polls say otherwise, but who’s reading polls? Oh, that’s right — everybody.

Literally the entire world is watching Iowa today. At Obama’s Des Moines headquarters yesterday morning, staffers were turning away journalists from Scandinavian and Japanese media outlets. The Polk County Convention Center in downtown Des Moines has reserved workspace for nearly every major European newspaper. Al-Jazeera will be there, too, on Thursday night, watching the results trickle in from tiny towns with names like Pocahontas, Oskaloosa, and — yes — Yale.

It’s 2:07 in the morning on January 3rd, 2008, and I’m tired. But not nearly as exhausted as the people of this state. Theirs is a population which has had to put up with scores of TV ads interrupting their favorite shows, dozens of robo-calls asking for support for

Candidate X, and more than a few young, cherub-faced volunteers braving cold Iowa winds to stand on doorsteps and get that last caucus-goer to come out.

Funny thing is, Iowans don’t mind — well, not too much. Most Iowans shoulder the responsibility of presidential selection proudly and seriously. One Edwards supporter who attended the former Senator’s rally with John Mellencamp last night said he had read Edwards’ entire 80-page policy outline before deciding to back Edwards’ bid for the White House.

And Iowans hate being told in advance who they’re going to vote for. While most caucus-goers head to the caucus with a good idea of whose corner they’ll stand in, a substantial minority — multiple sources have put the figure close to 15 percent — will make up their mind at the last minute.

That means shifting, that means hope and that means drama.

But for every college student watching the returns tonight, the drama will be a bit different. Because every college student watching will have the same question: Do I matter in 2008?

-Zack Abrahamson