The Washington Post

Iowans exhausted by campaign overload

Meet Matt Reisetter, a weary and somewhat teed-off Iowa voter.

A stay-at-home dad in his mid-30s, he has long since unplugged his two land lines to stop the nonstop calls from campaigns reminding him to vote. But that hasn’t blocked the three to four daily pieces of political mail.

When Reisetter arrived at the Polk County Election office early one morning last week, it seemed less an exercise of civic responsibility than a bid to finally get the 2012 campaign out of his life. And he didn’t want to talk about who he voted for.

“It’s like, enough,” he said.

Iowans such as Reisetter are suffering from what might be described as toxic levels of exposure to the 21st-century political campaign. President Obama’s organization never really left after 2008. Republicans who competed in last January’s precinct caucuses had begun stalking voters here soon after the 2010 midterm elections.

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Iowa’s status as a 2012 battleground state has meant a daily bombardment of television and radio ads, door knocks, candidate visits and celebrity events designed to entice laggards — or “highly valuable sporadic voters,” as one Obama strategist calls them — to register. Jon Bon Jovi, for example, played concerts in Iowa City and Des Moines on Friday for the Obama campaign.

The state’s 40-day early voting period began Sept. 27, and as of Thursday, 94,135 Iowans had cast their ballots. That amounts to roughly 6 percent of the electorate and more early voters so far than in all 49 others states and the District combined. Polk County Auditor Jamie Fitzgerald, who oversees voting, said Reisetter’s complaint is familiar.

“I think you’re seeing a lot of people here who just want to get their names off of the lists,” said Fitzgerald, referring to the lists of voters who have ordered absentee ballots but who haven’t mailed or walked them in.

“There’s probably a bit of voter fatigue,” said David Kochel, Mitt Romney’s lead Iowa strategist.

Early voting— meaning absentee ballot by mail or in person — has essentially ended “Election Day” as most people have known it here. For six weeks, two spheres of political activity once wholly separate — campaigning and voting — are completely fused.

Under Iowa law, county officials can open a satellite polling place just about anywhere if they receive a petition with at least 100 signatures. Campaigns have used the provisions to strategically spot 13 “petitioned” sites in Polk County precincts rich with their voters.

For Obama, that means places such as Drake University’s student center and La Tapatia Tienda Mexicana, a bustling market in the city’s Capitol East neighborhood. For Romney, it means the Woodland Hills Church of Christ in suburban Pleasant Hill and the Veterans Memorial Community Center in Elkhart.

The early-voting stakes are especially high in Iowa. On Election Day 2008, Republican John McCain received more votes than Obama. But Obama won the state by 10 percentage points on the basis of his success in banking early ballots. Thirty-six percent of the Iowa electorate voted early.

Obama strategists are hoping for the same result or better this year. Field workers began canvassing neighborhoods in the spring, using the same “snowflake” organizing model they employed four years ago. They say much of their network of neighborhood team leaders remains intact. Those leaders subdivide the work among “core team members” responsible for door knocking, data entry, event planning and other grass-roots basics.

Democrats say they are encouraged by the early numbers. As of Oct. 4, they held a 2-to-1 edge in absentee ballots requested (160,285 to 82,545), according to the Iowa secretary of state’s office. Democrats also are filling out ballots and returning them at a better than 3-to-1 clip (68,665 to 22,009).

Republicans face a steeper hill to climb on early balloting; strategists say their voters are more inclined, culturally and temperamentally, to come out on Election Day. But they say they are better prepared than in 2008. Since Sept, 25, more Republicans than Democrats have requested absentee ballots (51,990 to 41,007).

“Don’t believe the Obama hype on early voting,” said Kochel.

Kochel said his hope is that the presidential debates will provide some added energy to the early vote.

The most recent Des Moines Register poll shows Romney trailing Obama in Iowa 49-45 percent, with just 2 percent of voters undecided. It means that to win this state, he will need more early voters like Gina Francis.

Francis, 24, described herself as a registered Libertarian who said she knew she couldn’t vote for President Obama. She was on the fence about Romney, she said, until she saw his muscular performance in the debate Wednesday. On Thursday after work, she walked into the Board of Elections offices and filled out her ballot.

“He showed up,” is the way Francis put it. “I liked the way he put himself out there.”

It also means that the Obama camp will keep calling, e-mailing and knocking on doors until the last hour of the last day.

Unlike Reisetter, Tom Murphy doesn’t mind the political clutter in his life. A full-time dad and bass player in a local band called Circular Revolution, Murphy, 49, said he gets between 10 and 15 e-mails a day asking for money or reminding him to vote. If it keeps people engaged, all the better.

“You can’t get cynical,” he said.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.

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