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High school Democratic clubs multiply as young people worry about their future

Dubuque Senior High School student Mariah McKenna spoke about the disappointment after she "fell in love" with a candidate who has since dropped out of the campaign during the first meeting of the High School Democrats of America Dubuque County Chapter in Iowa.
Dubuque Senior High School student Mariah McKenna spoke about the disappointment after she "fell in love" with a candidate who has since dropped out of the campaign during the first meeting of the High School Democrats of America Dubuque County Chapter in Iowa.Kevin E. Schmidt for The Boston Globe

DUBUQUE, Iowa — It was a mad dash around the church basement as teenagers in sweat shirts rushed from corner to corner, choosing whom to caucus for in this crucial early voting state. This wasn’t about presidential candidates, though. This was a cookie caucus.

Although the subject was comical, as the young people campaigned on behalf of Oreos and chocolate chip cookies one recent night, the mock caucus was part of something very serious.

“The more involved we get, the more we see how necessary our involvement is,” said Avery Fair, 18, who organized the event. “It’s just a cycle that keeps going, you get your eyes opened.”

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Since President Trump’s election, the country has seen an explosion of activism by young people stemming from the belief that their future is at stake if they do not participate directly to address such problems as climate change and gun violence. Many of them are organizing as Democrats.

The mock caucus was the first meeting of one of the newest chapters of High School Democrats of America, a national organization whose membership has more than doubled in the past year to more than 7,000. There are now nearly 500 chapters nationwide, up from 250 six months ago. These most active students help energize their peers to also get involved in politics. The Republican Party has an offshoot called the National Teen Age Republicans, but that group is less active.

This holiday weekend, high schoolers from chapters in the Northeast are fanning out across New Hampshire for a day of canvassing.

“To see students self-organizing now is really exciting,” said John Della Volpe, who studies youth engagement in politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School.

The 2018 midterm elections saw record turnout among young people. The percentage of voters ages 18 to 29 was twice the average turnout over the past 32 years, according to Della Volpe’s research.

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High school organizing was a surprising part of the strategy that helped elect Barack Obama president, although only the oldest students can vote. But this year, young people in both political parties are far more enthusiastic than they were four or eight years ago at this point in the campaign cycle, Della Volpe said.

Membership in new chapters of High School Democrats started to grow after the 2016 election.

Trump has been president during a pivotal time in these students’ lives. He was elected when many of the now 18 year olds were high school freshmen. The divisiveness of the past four years has been the background of their adolescence and teenage Democrats say they are tired of it.

Wahlert Catholic High School Senior Avery Fair (center) made sure everyone was signed in during the meeting in Iowa.
Wahlert Catholic High School Senior Avery Fair (center) made sure everyone was signed in during the meeting in Iowa.Kevin E. Schmidt for The Boston Globe

More students also became active after the 2017 school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that killed people their own age. For others, the motivation is the fear of climate change, a phenomenon they know they will have to grapple with.

“I don’t like how things are now. I don’t like how the world is,” said Mariah McKenna, 18, a student at Dubuque Senior High School. “We are the people that can make a change. We are the future.”

Social media have helped high schoolers organize more effectively. And the High School Democrats of America has run a “meet the candidate” series using telephone town halls to hear from several the Democratic presidential candidates. Many students are now volunteering on campaigns. High School Democrats of America is separate from the national Democratic Party, but last summer the organization earned two seats on the Democratic National Committee. The high schoolers filling the two seats are the youngest of the DNC’s more than 200 members.

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The most active chapters nationwide have become involved in state and local elections, where they can have a larger impact. Many of those chapters are in traditionally Republican states such as Kansas, Indiana, Louisiana, and Texas, where one near Houston expanded over the last year from 40 members to more than 250.

Last year, the chapters in Louisiana worked to reelect Jon Bel Edwards, the state’s Democratic governor in a nationally watched race that drew the attention of Trump, who made a last-ditch effort to campaign for the Republican challenger. As it came down to the wire, the Louisiana high schoolers put out an alert to other chapters across the country, and students from other states helped make phone calls to voters.

Jack Greenspan, national president of the High School Democrats of America, said he got involved after a friend of his mother’s told him he was too young to have an opinion on their mayoral race in Scarsdale, N.Y. “That experience of being told that this wasn’t my place, first it angered me, then it really made me think and realize that I can’t be the only person who has gone through an experience like that,” he said.

Greenspan said it is not a coincidence that high schoolers in more conservative states are more active, campaigning on such topics as climate change, gun control, reproductive rights, and affordable health care, even though they often face pushback at school and in their communities.

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“Our members in red states are really facing these issues imminently and so there’s more of an impetus to get organized and to make a difference,” he said.

Iowa is a swing state, and Dubuque, a manufacturing town of about 60,000, was for decades a union stronghold of socially conservative Democrats. But in 2016 the county went narrowly for Trump, so being a Democrat here is not always easy, the students said.

“There’s a lot of partisanship within school and stuff like that, a lot of people in favor of Trump,” said Ava Bradley, 18, who also attends Dubuque Senior High. She posted about the mock caucus meeting on social media and received criticism, she said.

Fair arrived early on Monday afternoon to set up for the mock caucus, finagling a projector and setting out meeting agendas complete with caucus vocabulary. Her backpack is decorated with buttons from the two presidential campaigns she has volunteered for this cycle, those of Senators Kirstin Gillibrand and Kamala Harris, who both have dropped out. She subscribes to a lesson she learned from Harris: “Don’t ask permission to lead.”

Now Fair is working for Senator Elizabeth Warren in Iowa.

In the cookie caucus, Fair was a precinct captain for monster cookies, a Midwest specialty that has M&Ms, chocolate chips, peanut butter, and oatmeal. “Samples!” she called.

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“These have Ghirardelli chocolate chips in them!” barked the precinct captain for the chocolate chip cookies. “Only 70 calories — if you eat half!” said the precinct captain for something that was a combination brownie-cookie.

No one wanted the Keebler Fudge Stripes.

Instead of campaign posters, church signs that said “Love” “Hope” “Peace,” and “Joy” plastered the walls of their makeshift caucus room. From the roof hung curly decorations made from paper plates.

Brownie-cookies won the caucus. As they tabulated the results, the students devoured boxes of what had moments ago been their beloved candidates. Then they made plans for the future of their new club.

They want to invite local politicians to speak at their meetings, lobby on behalf of a bill in Des Moines, and get involved in local issues including student homelessness. Those who won’t be 18 before November still plan to volunteer on campaigns and on behalf of causes.

Students filtered out of the basement. The cookies were almost gone. Fair put away the projector and gathered forms she collected from people that night.

“I think it has the potential to be something really big,” she said.



Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.