MOUNT VERNON, Iowa — A small Iowa college will get its first visit from a sitting president in the school's 159-year history on Wednesday, illustrating how far Barack Obama's campaign is going to generate enthusiasm among young voters in the battleground state.
Obama is expected to appear at Cornell College mid-day on Wednesday for his first campaign event after debating challenger Mitt Romney on Tuesday night. The two are locked in a tight race for Iowa's six electoral votes, and Obama is trying to tap into the young voters who showed up in droves for him in 2008.
Students at the 1,200-student college in Mount Vernon, a small town about 15 miles east of Cedar Rapids, waited in long lines Sunday for tickets. The Obama campaign is hoping that many of them will vote immediately after the event at a satellite voting location at the school's library, a strategy to promote early voting that is deploying on campuses all over the state.
"It's cool that he's coming here, since it's just a small school," said Emily Wyler, a freshman from Madison, Wis., who is planning to see Obama and has already cast an absentee ballot for him. "Hopefully it will encourage people to get out and vote."
Even MacKenzie Dreeszen, a Cornell junior and leader with the College Republicans, said she planned to attend the event along with 25 or more Republicans wearing "Romney-Ryan" T-shirts. Her biology professor cancelled Wednesday's class so they can attend.
"We're very excited that he chose Cornell. We feel that it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and we're encouraging as many people to go as possible," she said, as workers were busy transforming the school's small basketball gym into a stage for the rally.
In the next two weeks, the Obama campaign is holding "campus takeover" events all over Iowa to coincide with 53 satellite voting locations that will be open at colleges.
On Thursday, musician Bruce Springsteen will appear at Iowa State University at a rally for Obama. Earlier this month, rocker Jon Bon Jovi had concerts in Iowa City and Des Moines. Last month, first lady Michelle Obama kicked of early voting at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.
The focus on the youth vote in Iowa makes particular sense. During the last presidential election in 2008, Iowa's young voters — considered those between 18 and 29 — had among the highest turnout in the nation at 63 percent, according to the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. Nationally, young voters went for Obama by a 2-1 margin over Republican John McCain.
Younger voters are also more susceptible to pitches from friends, neighbors and surrogates, experts say, and the attention from the Obama campaign shows those who may be disillusioned with politics that their individual vote matters.
"You can't argue that your vote doesn't count when a sitting president comes and visits your small university in the middle of Iowa," said Wendy Schatzberg, a visiting chemistry professor at Cornell, who said there was "a lot of buzz" over Obama's visit.
Still, the aggressive outreach strikes some Republicans as a sign that the state that launched Obama's presidential run with his win in the 2008 Iowa caucuses may be slipping away.
"The president sees the polls are moving in our direction. He sees that young people voted for him en masse 4 years ago are not prepared to do so again," said Tom Szold, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee in Iowa. "He's pulling out all the stops to try to rekindle that old magic, especially with the youth vote."
Tim Hagle, a University of Iowa political scientist and expert on the youth vote, said Obama's campaign to become the first black president and turn the page from the George W. Bush administration generated tremendous enthusiasm in 2008. But he said college-age voters are no longer enamored with Obama after four years of high unemployment and rising deficits, and may need "an extra nudge" to vote this time.
"You just don't have that same amount of enthusiasm. So what the strategy seems to be for the Obama campaign is to try to gin that up," he said. "If you show up on a college campus, you get people fired up, and walk them to the voting station, you are locking in those votes."