Newt Gingrich Under Your Mistletoe? Merry Caucus Campaign, Iowa!
Getting to Grandmother’s house for the holidays: For Iowans, it'll be over the stump and through the caucus rallies we go.
Iowans love retail politics and prize their influential role in choosing the next president, but they cherish and guard holiday family time more. So, some Iowa Republicans have some advice for presidential candidates trying to grab last-minute votes before Iowa's Jan. 3 caucuses: Shut up while we're eating.
To put it bluntly: “You don’t want to be bothering Aunt Martha when she’s getting ready for Thanksgiving dinner, or after when she’s out shopping for the kids and grandkids,” said Mike Mahaffey, a former state Republican Party chairman.
“Iowans take their politics seriously, but they take their holidays more seriously,” he said. “You don’t bother them the week of Thanksgiving, and you certainly don’t bother them the week of Christmas.”
While Iowans had been cringing at the thought of early December — or even November — caucuses, the new date means the final stretch of the campaign in Iowa runs smack-dab into Thanksgiving, Christmas and Hanukah. (Thank you, Florida and Nevada, for moving your voting dates earlier and creating the specter of Newt Gingrich puckering up under every Iowan's mistletoe.)
Campaigns need to be careful not to wear out their candidates' welcome over the holidays. They also should consider how much they ask of on-the-ground volunteers in Iowa during the holidays, said Mary Kramer, a former state senator and U.S. ambassador to Barbados, who volunteers for current frontrunner Mitt Romney.
“I value that time, and I don’t want to change it,” she said. “Am I going to knock on doors or make phone calls to someone? People who are dedicated volunteers are going to be torn.”
Kramer, who’s respected among moderate Republicans as a straight-talker who speaks across Iowa on returning civility to politics, added: “At the holiday season, do we want to be getting 20 robocalls a night?”
Not a good time for attack ads
In other words, if not fully muting the microphone, candidates should at least soften their message at Christmastime. Considering it's supposed to be the season of good cheer — and that a near-majority of voters here consider themselves fundamentalist Christians — attacks are more likely to backfire on a candidate than to do damage to an intended target.
"It's not a good time to be unloading a bunch of attack ads," said David Yepsen, who covered the Iowa caucuses for two decades as the Des Moines Register's political editor and now heads the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. "It has the effect of kind of toning down some of the stuff on TV."
Traditional campaign strategy may not work
That presents a conundrum for candidates who need to ensure their message is loud and clear while at the same time competing with family-centric activities for voters' attention, said Republican activist William Keettel of Iowa City.
Candidates need to be mindful of how their message plays during a time when Iowans are at their most charitable, he said. But at the same time, those like Mitt Romney, who for the most part has jettisoned the caucuses to concentrate on other states, may see renewed opportunity because the race has been fluid.
“To throw a campaign together during the holidays, you have to spend some money on media,” Keettel said. "Traditional campaigning in Iowa is based on organization, organization, organization, but that may not hold this year — not because it's a bad strategy, but because the race is so fluid. People will be forced to use a higher level of paid media than normal."
Paul, strong among college students, may have most to lose
Keettel thinks that among all Republican candidates, Ron Paul has the most to lose with the earlier caucus date because he enjoys strong support among University of Iowa students, many of whom will still be on winter break on Caucus Night.
“Ron Paul offers a philosophy based on pure application of certain economic and social philosophies, and when young people have been exposed to that philosophy, they’ve bought it whole and in an uncompromising manner,” Keettel said.
Republican political strategist Eric Woolson, who ran Mike Huckabee's caucus-winning Iowa campaign in 2008 and is now a spokesman for Michele Bachmann's campaign, expects that most candidates will do as they did four years ago and close their Iowa offices for two and a half days over both Thanksgiving and Christmas. He doesn't think the compressed caucus calendar will prompt much change in candidates' demeanor.
Mahaffey said hopscotching among states for early voting lead-off status makes it more difficult for candidates to spend time in Iowa and New Hampshire, small states where retail politics is most effective. But if there's a bright side, it's that the more serious, focused debate of a short calendar could lessen the impact of the “small-ball politics” some candidates are playing to appeal to blocks of voters on wedge issues like homosexuality and abortion.
“There aren’t many people in Iowa who don’t know somebody who has lost a job, and the federal deficit is a huge problem,” he said. “The economy and jobs are the issues people care about.”
Record turnout on the same date in 2008
If record caucus turnout by both Republicans and Democrats on the same date in 2008 counts for anything, Iowans won’t be dissuaded from caucusing just three days into the new year, said Steffen Schmidt, a political science professor at Iowa State University and well-regarded media pundit.
“For Republicans, it’s one hour,” Schmidt said. “They don’t have the elaborate decision-making process of Democrats, so they can attend their caucus on the way home from work.”
Yepsen said he doesn't think it's "a big deal" to most Iowans that campaign schedules bump against the holiday celebratons as candidates approach the caucus finish line. With competition strong for Iowa's first-in-the-nation status — so far, anyway — it's the "new normal," he said.
“There’s not much we can do about it,” groused Jon McAvoy, an active Republican living in Dallas County, Iowa’s fastest-growing county and a stronghold for conservative politics. "But at least it's not the same night as the Orange Bowl."