There’s not much time between Thanksgiving and the Iowa caucus, but campaigns can’t appear to be intruding on family time.
Presidential candidates should spend the holidays trying to make themselves part of the voters’ families instead of campaigning for their support, experts say.
With the Iowa caucus taking place nine days after Christmas and the New Hampshire primary happening a week after that, candidates can’t afford to take much down time during the festive season.
But they also can’t appear to be intruding on what many voters’ see as family time.
“It’s more difficult unless you find a venue that doesn’t feel intrusive,” said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. She added that the risk is that voters view this as “family time, and presidential advertising feels as if it’s intruding on space that should really not have that interruption.”
One way around that is for candidates to wish voters a “Merry Christmas” instead of hitting them with attack ads.
“It’s just not the time to try to be attacking your opponent. I think that’s maybe the most important thing to remember,” said Craig Robinson of The Iowa Republican, a GOP-based website. He’s also the former political director of the Iowa Republican Party.
The “Christmas card” ad strategy proved effective in 2008.
One of the most well-remembered ads from that cycle was from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), who won the Iowa caucus that year.
His ad featured the candidate wearing a red sweater, speaking directly to camera with “Silent Night” playing in the background. What garnered the most attention was the outline of a bookcase in the background that led viewers to question whether it was meant to represent a “floating cross.”
“Huckabee gained by creating and delivering an ad that seemed genuine but also signaled his Christian identification,” Jamieson noted.
Other candidates ran similarly themed ads.
Then-Democratic hopeful Barack Obama, who was facing rumors that he was Muslim, aired an ad featuring him with his wife and daughters, sitting in front of a Christmas tree, offering what many saw as a subtle nod to his Christianity.
Opponent Hillary Clinton’s more wonky ad managed to convey her campaign message, featuring presents labeled “Universal Health Care,” “Alternative Energy,” “Bring Our Troops Home” and “Middle Class Tax Breaks.”
“It’s rare in politics if you get anything that is new in advertising — and that was new,” Jamieson said of the ads. “And I expect it’s going to be repeated this year, because it’s effective.”
While care is required, there can be opportunities to connect with voters.
“There are also opportunities this creates where you can showcase your family, your values,” Robinson said. “It’s not all about attacking your opponents. It’s about, ‘This is who I am as a person,’ and I think that kind of politicking plays well in Iowa.”
It particularly plays well with conservative evangelical voters, who are an influential part of the Iowa caucus process. It was this group who propelled Huckabee to his win in 2008 — and they don’t want to see negative ads.
Jamieson advises candidates to bring their families with them so “the voters get the sense that the family is celebrating the holiday and hasn’t replaced the holiday with campaigning.”
“Having the family is an indispensible part of making the argument,” she added.
That’s already been happening this cycle among the Republican hopefuls.
Former Sen. Rick Santorum (Pa.) has had his wife and seven children with him at several events in Iowa. He brought all of them to the state for most of July in the lead up to the Ames straw poll. Since then, they have campaigned separately and together around the early voting state.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has sent his wife Ann and son Josh to the state. And Ann Romney filed his primary paperwork in South Carolina. She has her own campaign schedule, offering personal stories about the family to voters, in an effort to show a softer side of her husband.
Callista Gingrich has been with husband Newt on the trail in both Iowa and New Hampshire.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman’s daughters — Liddy, Abby and Mary Anne — have been a vocal presence on the campaign trail both literally and virally through their Twitter account: @jon2012girls.
Marcus Bachmann has been seen on the campaign trail with his wife, Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.). He filed her paperwork for the South Carolina primary.
And Anita Perry has campaigned with husband, Texas Gov. Rick Perry, and on her own, even going as far as knocking on doors in South Carolina for him and forming an Iowa “strike force” for the campaign.
Notably missing has been Herman Cain’s wife, Gloria, although she did give an interview to Fox News to defend her husband from allegations of sexually inappropriate behavior.
But one thing voters in those early states expect is for the campaign to go on.
“This is the second time in a row we’re on January 3rd, so I think we’re used to it now and it’s not such a novelty,” Robinson said, adding that a couple of days after Christmas is “when you can resume politics as normal.”