Politics & Government

Iowa GOP sets vote for Jan. 3, raising problems

DES MOINES, Iowa — Ready for some presidential politics in the middle of Christmas? Some campaign volunteers elbowing carolers off the front porch? How about some really nasty brochures in the mailbox alongside the Christmas cards?

That's the prospect facing voters in Iowa now that the Iowa Republican Party moved Tuesday to accelerate the date of its presidential precinct caucuses to Jan. 3, the earliest by far in history.

It's also a challenge facing presidential candidates, who do their most aggressive campaigning in the week leading up to Iowa's influential caucuses, which traditionally lead off voting for the two major party nominations.

For front-runners, that week's the key time to solidify their lead. For challengers looking to move up or who face elimination, that's the time to grab voters' attention and overtake candidates ahead of them. Hotly worded charges fly, the airwaves are filled with attacks, and mailboxes bulge with campaign literature.

But this time, it's also Christmas week.

"We have to be careful," said Gentry Collins, the Iowa campaign director for Republican Mitt Romney. "The average family doesn't want campaigns calling or knocking on the door during the holidays. It's probably a time when they don't want to hear a lot from the campaigns."

Then there's the question of how to compete on TV with all the holiday ads. An ad about the threat of a terrorist attack might not feel right before one with smiling children opening gift-wrapped toys. There also might not be much TV time available for political ads.

And it's far from certain that the campaigns can get their volunteers out to knock on doors and make phone calls during the holidays. Many are college kids who'll be on break.

"It certainly complicates things for the campaigns," said Peverill Squire, a political scientist at the University of Iowa. "They want to build up to the caucuses. But they're going to find that difficult to do with Christmas and New Year's. ...We don't know how far the candidates will be willing to go to impose themselves."

It also could make it even more difficult for polls to measure how the candidates are doing. It's already hard to measure support heading into caucuses, which are town hall-like meetings. One reason: It's very hard to know in advance what the supporters of lesser candidates will do if their candidate doesn't get the necessary 15 percent support of a caucus to be counted. Who'll they throw their support behind as a second choice?

In addition, how many families will be home to answer poll calls — and how many will turn down the sound on a bowl game to take the call?

Why did the Iowa GOP do this? Because Iowa wants to keep its influential role as the first state to vote.

The two major parties decided to honor tradition, setting Iowa to hold the first precinct caucuses and New Hampshire to hold the first primary eight days later.

But other states are refusing to go along.

First, Florida moved up its primary. Then Michigan did, too. Now Iowa Republicans have followed suit. Iowa Democrats haven't yet decided what to do.

Next, New Hampshire's secretary of state will set the date for his state's primary. Iowa Republicans think that could be Jan. 8, but admit it also could be set for early December.

Which would push the hyper-phase of the campaign into Thanksgiving.