AMES, Iowa – Pierce Fieldsend was in eighth grade when he discovered politics, thanks to an Illinois senator named Barack Obama. His friend’s parents took him out of school to see the Democratic presidential candidate speak in Des Moines, and, like a lot of young people in 2008, Fieldsend was blown away by what he heard.
“I immediately attached to his message and his policies,” he recalled Tuesday.
Now a sophomore at Iowa State University, he tells the story while standing in front of a giant bus advertising Hillary Clinton, Obama’s Democratic rival who lost the critical Iowa Caucuses thanks in part to an unprecedented outpouring of support for Obama from college students.
Fieldsend is organizing a student chapter of Ready for Hillary – the Clinton shadow campaign super PAC – on campus and has no reservations about jumping in early for the former secretary of state.
After helping more than 180 students Sunday attend the Iowa Steak Fry, where Bill and Hillary Clinton spoke, Ready for Hillary’s campaign-style bus embarked on a tour of six Iowa colleges and universities to build support. Iowa State was the first stop and the group is on track to sign up more than 1,000 students this week.
In Clinton, Fieldsend sees the strongest possible Democratic nominee and another chance to make history. “I want to say I was part of a movement to elect the first female president in 240 years of this country’s history,” he said.
It’s a sentiment expressed by numerous college students in Iowa who spoke with msnbc, and it’s one that appears surprisingly common among young people nationally, considering how poorly Clinton did among the cohort in 2008.
According to a recent Harvard University survey, 80% of young Democrats have a favorable view of Clinton. Sixty-nine percent said they would vote for her if the primary were held today, according to another poll. In the 2008 Iowa Caucus, 57% of voters in the same age range supported Obama, compared to between just 10% and 15% for Clinton, according to exit polls. The gap was smaller in the larger set of Super Tuesday states, but Obama still bested Clinton among the demographic 57% to 41%.
Rachel Schneider, Ready for Hillary’s Young Americans director, who held a similar role for Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, said she’s consistently surprised by the support she finds on the campuses she visits.
Schneider and the super PAC have been quietly touring the country, helping to incubate new Students for Hillary chapters. So far, they’ve set up groups on more than 80 campuses, heavily concentrated in the early primary and caucus states.
It works like this: Before Ready for Hillary arrives at any university, they identify potential supporters on campus from existing organizations (Democratic clubs, women’s’ groups, LGBT groups, etc.) and among people who have already signed up on the group’s website with “.edu” email addresses or under the group’s student section.
“They’re miles ahead of any other campaign or any other person,” said Zoe Kustritz, the president of the Iowa State College Democrats, who is remaining neutral on 2016, though she has helped Ready for Hillary navigate her school’s bureaucracy to set up a local chapter.
The goal is to make the groups self-sustaining, so they can continue to do events and build the super PAC’s mass list of supporters on their own. Schneider works with the team leaders on each campus to set goals for the number of sing ups. If they meet their fall semester numbers, the teams get a cardboard cutout of Clinton. One day, the organizers could be folded into an official Clinton campaign, much as Obama’s 2008 campaign did with the Students for Obama group started independently in 2006, long before he declared.
“Students for Obama was huge, and I think that Students for Hillary will be just as big, if not end up being bigger,” Schneider said. For the student organizers, many of whom want to work in politics, it’s a great opportunity to get a foot in the door early.
Of course, there are plenty of college students who are not ready for Hillary this time, and her current sky-high poll numbers are likely artificially inflated thanks to her universal name recognition and the lack of a clear alternative.
Many, if not most, of Ready for Hillary’s own junior staffers supported Obama in 2008.
At an event Sunday night in Des Moines for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is also eyeing a presidential run, some young voters dismissed Clinton as a “corporate Democrat” too friendly to Wall Street. Others took issue with her hawkish foreign policy views.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat of Massachusetts, has also captured the enthusiasm of many young liberals, though she is unlikely to run for president if Clinton chooses to.
But in the absence of another Howard Dean or Barack Obama, both of whom built their campaigns on youth enthusiasm, Clinton looks capable of far outperforming her 2008 numbers with the group. Before Ready for Hillary visited tiny Cornell College this week, they had just one supporter on campus in their database. They left two hours after they arrived with more than 10% of the student body signed up.
Young people are a crucial demographic in the Democratic coalition, and the retirement-age Clinton has been working hard to make gains in the group ahead of a potential presidential bid.
Clinton has appeared on “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report,” spoken at more than half a dozen universities (earning hackles at some for her exorbitant speaking fees), expanded her social media platform, and takes every opportunity she gets to laude young people.
In June, she rolled out a new plan to boost youth employment via the Clinton Global Initiative, with 10 major companies signing on to hire young people.
There’s no single reason why so many young people have come around on Clinton, and much of it reflects Democrats’ larger reconsideration of the once-defeated candidate.
But the most common response from students whom msnbc put the question to was the opportunity to be inspired by another candidate who can make history – even if Clinton can’t quite capture the same lightning in bottle that was Obama’s moment in 2008.
“I think that the Obama campaign touched so many people and was such an emotional experience that people want that again,” Kustritz said. “A few of the people I went with [to the Steak Fry] were like, eh, she’s not Obama. But you know, you can only get one Obama.”