CEDAR RAPIDS — In a high school classroom lined with black-and-white portraits of past presidents, about 150 of Chris Rolwes’ students decided Tuesday who they would choose to be next.
They were some of thousands of students across Iowa — home of the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses Monday — who made their picks in the Iowa Youth Straw Poll, organized by the Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate and his office.
“The big thing I want more than anything is civic engagement,” said Rolwes, who has taught at Jefferson High School for 18 years. “Then whatever candidate they choose to support is based on their knowledge of the issues.”
His students spent classtime researching the 15 presidential candidates running for both the Democratic and Republican nominations this cycle — Googling their stances and ruffling through stacks of political mailers Rowles brought from home.
Many of the teenagers, most 16 or 17, said they remain uncommitted to one candidate, with some overwhelmed by the idea of choosing the nation’s top executive.
“Somebody asked me, so how do I know who to vote for?” student-teacher Conrad Nichols said. “That is a good question.”
At 4:30 p.m., the lead in the straw poll was businessman Andrew Yang, with 3,370 votes — with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders close behind with more than 3,200 — for the Democratic nomination.
Among Rolwes’ morning classes, former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg was out-front.
“I am definitely, probably Pete,” Justin Cano, 16, said. “Someone might still be able to change my mind, but right now it’s Pete.”
Statewide, Buttigieg came in third among Democrats with almost 2,700 votes. Biden finished in fourth with 1,700.
Incumbent President Donald Trump decidedly beat his Republican challengers, Joe Walsh and Bill Weld, with nearly 7,950 votes statewide.
Some of the students who participated in the straw poll, like 17-year-old Damien Foster, will be 18 by the general election in November and are eligible to caucus Monday.
Already engaged in the 2020 election, Foster said he plans to attend a Republican site and caucus for Trump.
“It will be nice to go and get political energy from others in Iowa,” he said. “I do like that we talk about the election and this process (in class). I’m interested in the politics field, but I know a lot of other students aren’t.”
Another eligible caucusgoer, 17-year-old Ewan Greear, said he isn’t sure which party’s caucus he would attend, if he could — his show choir rehearsal conflicts with the 7 p.m. caucuses.
“I have stuff every day after school,” he said. “Is there one for independents?”
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The vast majority of students who participated in the poll reported they would register to vote once they’re old enough.
“It’s not a very good sample because you have some teachers who do it and some who don’t,” Rolwes said. “If anything, it’s a great tool for civic engagement. It’s about getting them to think about more than the day-to-day things kids think about.”
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