Imagine a place where campaigning never stops. Where the election lasts a lifetime and the candidates want to meet you, shake your hand and talk about the issues most important to you. A place where the biggest draw at the state’s fair is either the next president of the United States or a giant butter sculpture.
Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa.
In the summer of 2011, several candidates whose names have since faded in the race for the White House were camped out in Iowa. They spent time giving speeches at county fundraising dinners and Rotary Clubs. Shaking hands and sleeping as overnight guests in small towns. Conducting the sort of retail campaigning Iowans have come to expect from the candidates who converge on their state in the predawn of a campaign season. On Aug. 13, 2011, Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., won the Ames Straw Poll, the semi-official kickoff for the 2012 campaign. And Iowa been held hostage to an almost perpetual campaign ever since.
Larry Blaker and Richard Saemisch live in Perry, a small town in the Raccoon Valley, about an hour’s drive from Ames. Every morning, Larry and Richard meet with a group of gentlemen at the historic Hotel Pattee for coffee and a card game. Sitting at a corner table framed by black and white photographs of Perry, once a vital stop for a handful of railroads, at some point the conversation turns, as it often does, to politics.
“We are a caucus state and also a swing state in this particular election,” said Blaker, a self-identified independent. “And we just wonder, why does this have to go on so long? We don’t have to be exposed to [the campaigns] for this long to figure out who we want to run our country. We can do this in six weeks.”
Sunrise outside Perry, Iowa. Photo by Alex Bruns
The candidate visits, phone calls, direct mail, emails and text messages Iowans receive have been flooding in for more than a year. In an election projected to cost $6 billion, funded largely by outside groups, Iowa, with its swing state status and cheap media markets, has been saturated.
“I cannot imagine that amount of money being spent to become elected president of the United States. Or for anything.” said Saemisch, who also has a retirement home in Florida. “When I left here [earlier this year] I thought I was going to get a break from the ads. I mean we are just bombarded with ads. But I went to Florida and I got the same thing down there because it’s a swing state too.”
Since June 1, more than 1 million campaign ads have hit the airwaves nationally. This number is disproportionately high in swing states like Iowa. In the last week, Des Moines, Davenport and Cedar Rapids were in the top 25 markets by volume for campaign ads. No media market in Iowa is in the top 70 nationally for total viewers.
“Nearly every ad break has at least one political ad for some race. Just the candidates have spent around $40 million here on TV advertising,” said Justin Holmes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa. “This is less than Ohio and some others, but we are a small state with cheap ad rates. So that buys serious saturation.”
The candidates, their wives and top surrogates are also spending more time in Iowa this year. President Obama and Mitt Romney have visited the state over 25 times. In 2008, Obama made 10 trips to the Hawkeye State and as since taking office he had only visited the state five times prior to this year. Another sign of the state’s importance: Obama has scheduled the final event of this campaign in Iowa on Monday.
“Iowans like the attention as the ‘first in the nation’ caucus state. It’s early in the process and lots of the attention is personal, meeting the candidates face-to-face,” said Cary Covington, a political science professor at the University of Iowa. “By this point in the general election, that attention feels like the uncle who corners you at a family reunion and won’t stop talking about himself and won’t let you get away.”
“We’re pretty much all like Abigael Evans at this point,” Covington added.
Eddie DÃaz, a teacher who famously challenged Rep. Michele Bachmann on illegal immigration during a campaign stop in Perry last fall put it this way:
“I guarantee you as soon as the election goes by, I will be happy, and I will be burned out, and I won’t be ready for another three-and-a-half years.”