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‘Our phone rings from 7 in the morning until 10 at night.’ Life in Iowa’s political bombardment zone

James Monaghan reached for the remote as he watches TV in his living room with his wife, Jennifer.
James Monaghan reached for the remote as he watches TV in his living room with his wife, Jennifer.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

WAVERLY, Iowa – After a 43-year career at the local Nestle plant and successfully raising three well-adjusted daughters, Jim Monaghan thinks he’s earned the right to relax a bit.

Most days, the 73-year-old retiree takes a morning walk with his wife, Jennifer, through the quiet woods behind the couple’s house. He helps look after their three dogs, Mia, Molly, and Bell. And each night after supper, he settles into his corn-colored recliner — beneath the wooden cross and the sign reading “Family is life’s greatest blessing” — ready to cap off the day with his favorite shows: “Chicago Fire,” “NCIS,” and “America’s Got Talent.”

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Lately, though, he can’t seem to get through five minutes without being bombarded with an endless stream of political ads.

“It’s all I hear — over and over and over,” grumbles Monaghan, who has taken to watching “Bonanza,” a show he doesn’t particularly like, on a channel that doesn’t run political commercials.

In a state famous for politeness and hospitality — “Iowa Nice” is more than just a slogan here — the intensity of the campaigns’ relentless messaging this time around has managed to do the unthinkable: Make stalwart Iowans downright cranky.

All across this frozen, snow-covered state, folks are grinding their teeth and griping to one another about the inescapable onslaught of text messages, TV ads, and mailboxes stuffed with political literature. The campaign phone calls have been endless. Social media feeds are so jammed with messaging that it can be impossible to scroll through family photos on Facebook without enduring the pleading overtures of the various Democratic hopefuls. It’s only grown worse as next Monday’s caucus approaches.

“Our phone rings from 7 in the morning until 10 at night,” complains Mary Lee, 77.

“We don’t need to hear the same thing 100 times,” adds Deb Turnball.

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Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Things have gotten so bad that even the kindliest of grandmothers are as testy as Mass. Turnpike motorists.

Groused one white-haired woman having Friday night dinner at the local Hy-Vee, where political ads played, one after another, on the television in front of her: “Hopefully, they shut up for a while!”

For decades, the crush of pre-caucus political advertising has been an accepted part of election-year life in the Hawkeye State, the price to be paid for the honor of being the first state in the country to caucus.

But this year, some say, the bombardment has been particularly brutal.

In early January, Democratic candidates had already spent more than $45 million in political advertising — as much as Democratic and Republican candidates spent during the entire caucus season in 2016, The Des Moines register reported. Some projections say that figure could double by Feb. 3.

Ads began airing so early this time around that when Travis Toliver, the executive director of the Waverly Chamber of Commerce, saw a TV spot for 2020 presidential hopeful John Delaney shortly after Trump’s victory four years ago, he assumed it must have been an ad left over from the 2016 election — one that local TV stations had simply forgotten to stop running.

They are now unavoidable.

Some residents say they’ve heard the same ads so many times they can recite them by heart. Many have fled regular TV for Netflix, aware that the streaming network — for now, at least — is a politics-free space.

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An advertisement for Tom Steyer played inside the Hy-Vee grocery store.
An advertisement for Tom Steyer played inside the Hy-Vee grocery store. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

Rick Venn of Des Moines has grown so sick of the phone calls that he’s vowed to tell the next campaign caller that he will not be voting for their candidate, no matter who it is, simply out of spite. (Note to Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren: You might want to take Venn — who currently has your support — off the campaign’s call list, ASAP.)

Cellphones have become weaponized instruments of annoyance, constantly buzzing to life with the sloppy overtures of various campaigns.

“Hi Carolyn!” began one recent string of texts sent to a Waverly woman from a Bernie Sanders representative, which went on to praise the Vermont senator for his purported efforts against greed and corruption.

The problem?

“My name’s not Carolyn,” says Sarah Miller.

And this is to say nothing of the neighborhood canvassers, who show up on doorsteps each weekend carrying stacks of leaflets and the won’t-take-no-for-an-answer stubbornness of a used-car salesman.

Despite living in a secure building where visitors must be buzzed in, Jonna Brown of Des Moines has inexplicably answered her unit’s front door on multiple occasions to find a campaign staffer standing outside, eager to talk politics. “Even though we have a sign that says ‘No Soliciting,’” she says.

A week or two ago, Miller found herself at home following a snowstorm, trying to deal with two sick toddlers. She had just managed to get one of the children to sleep when, immediately, the doorbell sounded.

“They’re very nice and very gracious,” says Miller, who, in keeping with Iowa tradition, adorns any vaguely critical comment with a positive caveat. “But . . . they always come during nap time.”

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Sometimes, it’s the candidates themselves who end up grinding Iowans’ gears.

Not long ago, says Kathy Anderson, who works as a waitress at Klunder’s Kafe in New Hampton, representatives for Democratic hopeful Tom Steyer contacted the diner about the candidate coming to the restaurant for a meal while on the campaign trail. Things quickly went south from there.

“They wanted to move everything around and take down our decorations,” says Anderson, who added that, unlike other candidates or surrogates who have stopped by the restaurant, the California billionaire made no effort to mingle with customers or introduce himself to the owner.

The good news is that the end — or, more accurately, a temporary reprieve — is imminent.

Immediately following next Monday’s caucus, candidates will pack their bags, and the political world will turn its attention to New Hampshire, and the fine folks here in Iowa will be able to finally return to something approaching normalcy.

It is a day, certainly, that many Iowans have been eagerly anticipating, though, as more than one resident pointed out, their current annoyance might soon be replaced by another.

“In Iowa,” explains Turnball, “it goes from the political ads right into the spring farming ads.”

“And we get sick of those, too.”


Dugan Arnett can be reached at dugan.arnett@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @duganarnett

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