CEDAR FALLS, Iowa — Once again, New Year’s hangovers will hardly have worn off by the time Iowans turn out for the Iowa caucuses.
When other states were jostling this past summer and fall for earlier primary and caucus dates, Iowa’s Republican Party decided to move the caucuses up to Jan. 3, the same date as four years ago.
The early date adds a new twist for candidates looking to make noise in the nation’s first battleground for the presidential nomination.
Near Christmas, candidates find audiences can be more difficult to track down, with families traveling for the holidays. College students are on winter break and have largely scattered.
Then there’s the problem of how to continue to get the message out without offending the sensibilities of Iowans focused on family and religious activities.
Friendly, family-focused ads are often aired near the holidays, and therefore, near the caucus date in this early cycle.
Justin Holmes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Northern Iowa, finds the early caucus date certainly does change the schedule.
“It throws a monkey wrench in campaigning,” Holmes said. “We see really a blackout around Christmas. Essentially, we see the race fairly well settled by the time we break for Christmas.”
The presidential candidates appreciate the chance to spend time with family, a scarcity during the election season. But they also are working full bore to reach voters, looking for that final boost.
Eric Woolson, the Iowa campaign manager for Michele Bachmann, acknowledges Christmas Eve and Christmas Day are a time for family and presidential campaigns will shut down. But he thinks candidates can still get their message out to voters aside from that window.
“We really are at a point where Iowans who plan to caucus are focused on the process of making up their minds,” Woolson said.
When the caucuses were held in February traditionally, the issue of college student attendance didn’t draw as much attention. Students could participate where they go to school.
But the caucuses were moved up to Jan. 3 in 2008 as well to stave off efforts from other states to assume first-in-the-nation status. In that election, candidates made concerted efforts to get college students to come out to the caucuses. Barack Obama, in particular, pushed hard for student involvement, but that caucus season saw turnout among young people spike for Republicans as well. Overall, attendance tripled that year for voters age 24 and younger.
This year, with no serious challenge to Obama on the Democratic side and no intense effort to draw Republican college students, the turnout could be more in question. One exception could be Ron Paul supporters. Paul’s campaign has drawn hundreds, even thousands to youth rallies in December. His campaign is confident students have the drive to get out and caucus, whether that happens on campus or in their hometowns.
Two friends attended a Paul rally at the University of Northern Iowa Dec. 9, and their plans seem to back up Paul’s expectations.
Casey Studer, 22, hails from West Bend but will be in Cedar Falls for the caucus and will attend the event at the UNI-Dome. The rally heightened his excitement about the campaign.
“I wanted to come out and be part of something greater than myself,” Studer said.
His friend Anthony Harrington will return to his hometown of Pomeroy, where he will serve as precinct captain for Paul.
Although Christmas Eve and Day are campaign-free zones, that’s not necessarily the case for New Year’s.
In the 2008 caucus season, several candidates decided to campaign during the day but spent New Year’s Eve quietly at home. Others hosted parties to get a little attention and reward supporters.
Woolson worked for eventual Iowa caucus winner Mike Huckabee during that campaign. The campaign had a big New Year’s Eve party, including Chuck Norris.
“We had a pretty good crowd,” he recalled.
He expects Bachmann’s campaign will do something again this year to continue building momentum through the holiday.
The media crush only intensifies around the New Year. Huckabee used that to his advantage on New Year’s Eve when he had a news conference early in the day to show the media an attack ad he had that targeted Mitt Romney. He played the ad but told the assembled crowd that he chose not to air it because he didn’t want to set a negative tone.