DES MOINES, Iowa — Shane Schreiner wasn’t expecting to come to the Iowa Freedom Summit during his weekend in the Hawkeye State.
Schreiner, a college linebacker, was at the Marriott in downtown Des Moines on Friday after a recruiting trip to Graceland University in Lamoni, Iowa. There, he just happened to run into someone named Sarah Palin, who encouraged him to come out to the summit on Saturday.
“She’s just a cool, down-to-earth person,” Schreiner told Fusion. “We just mostly made small talk. But from what she said I thought I’d give this a shot.”
The 21-year-old Schreiner came from a junior college in Washington state, looking for a new college to continue his football career. He left with a couple possible presidential candidates in mind — retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker.
Walker and Carson were two of the big winners of the weekend summit, which served as the unofficial kickoff for the 2016 Republican presidential primary. Their speeches thrilled the conservative audience here and established them as household names in the all-important, first-in-the-nation caucus state.
Both also gained legions of new, younger followers, who left impressed by their speeches at the summit. Fusion spoke with more than a dozen young people between the ages of 18 and 28, and either Walker and/or Carson’s names came up in every single conversation.
“I think young people are looking for someone who they can understand, who doesn’t seem fake, and who they can see more as a friend,” 18-year-old Nathan Paulson said. He said Walker’s energy grabbed him, while he sees Carson as someone with the personality to potentially “grab the younger vote” more than a typical Republican.
Most of Carson’s young conservative supporters pointed to one major advantage: He’s not a career politician. At a time when the public’s perception of Washington is near all-time lows, especially among young people, Carson has a reputation as an outsider who can fix the problems in the system.
That, along with his scathing criticism of the Affordable Care Act, have made him a rising conservative rockstar. And the phenomenon spans across all ages.
“He’s not a typical politician, and he’s got a lot of common sense,” said Vanessa Hutson, a 28-year-old from West Des Moines. “Washington is a nasty clash between the parties, so he is nice to see. He’s somebody with a humble perspective, not just always fighting with the other party.”
But Carson’s outsider status at times masks his naiveté. In a side interview on Saturday, Bloomberg Politics’ Mark Halperin asked Carson if he supported President Barack Obama’s willingness to target U.S. citizens in drone strikes if it’s determined they are engaged in terrorist activities. He also asked Carson if he would do the same as president.
Carson hesitated, then said he’d have to study more on the issue. Which leads to the question: How long can he get away with a relative lack of expertise on certain issues, about a year away from the Iowa caucuses? That’s especially pertinent on matters of foreign policy, where he has no experience.
His young supporters think he’ll get it, eventually. For now, with young people, he’s clearly on the upswing. And for his part, Carson said the key to Republicans winning over younger voters starts on the domestic policy side, where he said he has plenty of ideas.
“The key thing is you’d prepare policies that demonstrate to them that we’re looking out for their future,” Carson said in an interview with Fusion. “And we obliterate those things that are adversely affecting their future.” Three areas he mentioned required fixing were the deficit, student-loan debt, and national-security policies.
Walker, on the other hand, wowed nearly everyone in the audience with a fiery speech, on a day when multiple observers here said his main job was avoiding coming across as too boring — the 2016 version of former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Most compelling about Walker to attendees was his detailing of his personal story, which he hadn’t revealed in front of a high-profile audience. He told the audience of how he grew up in Plainsfield, Iowa, a not-too-subtle nod that he was one of them.
And he told of his battle with public-sector unions in 2011, which led to a recall election in 2012 that he improbably survived. He said he and his wife and children received death threats — still do.
“He presented himself extremely well,” said Adam Van Der Molen, a 27-year-old from Johnston, Iowa. “He’s been through a lot of adversity, and he’s still someone who sticks to his convictions.”
Joe Mitchell, who isn’t old enough to vote yet — he’s 17 — but will be next year, added he was impressed by Walker’s highlighting of a record he thinks could translate to the presidency.
“He laid out the proof of what he’s done,” said Mitchell, who is from Wayland, Iowa. “I think he’d be a great president.”
Attracting young voters is a priority for a party that continues to lack in that department. According to 2012 exit polls, 60 percent of voters aged 18-29 voted for Obama in the 2012 election, compared with only 37 percent who broke for Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
Schreiner, the college linebacker from Washington, is glad the party hooked him so early.
“Oh yeah, for sure,” he said, when asked if he could see himself voting for a Republican present at the Freedom Summit for president next year. “I think a lot of them would be great.”
Brett LoGiurato is the senior national political correspondent at Fusion, where he covers all things 2016. He'll give you everything you need to know about politics, with a healthy side of puns.