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A Day In The Life Of An Iowa Family Drowning In Campaign Ads

By the time the clock struck 7 a.m. on a recent Wednesday morning in Des Moines, Iowa, Betsy Sarcone, 32, had seen six or seven campaign ads on TV, driven by a pair of hot pink Jeb Bush billboards and done a session of hot yoga. She arrived back home to cajole her daughters into brushing their hair for school — “just a little bit?” — and the commercials kept rolling, the white noise that all of Iowa has been blanketed by this winter.

From Jan. 1 to the time the caucuses roll around on Feb. 1, more than 17,000 ads will have aired in the state. It’s a staggering number, but also doesn’t even account for the myriad other ways that modern campaigns get in touch with voters: phone calls, door knocking, Facebook ads, sponsored Twitter posts, emails and push notifications. All of Iowa has been hotboxed by super PAC and campaign ad spending, its residents forced to inhale the fumes of democracy whether they like it or not. Which means that the day in the life of an average Iowan in January is … kind of trippy, especially if you try to quantify what exactly that deluge of ads looks like for a single family.

“They’re on constantly,” Sarcone said of the ads. Marco Rubio seemed to her to be on air the most — there were 7,000 ads scheduled to air for him throughout the month, and as an undecided Republican caucus-goer, Sarcone was taking note. “My interest is piqued by Marco Rubio when I see him on TV,” she said.

Nick Sarcone takes his two daughters, Lydia and Bianca, to school on Jan. 13.

Nick Sarcone takes his two daughters, Lydia and Bianca, to school on Jan. 13.

Danny Wilcox Frazier/VII for FiveThirtyEight

Dressed in a T-shirt advertising her real estate company, her hair up in a post-workout ponytail, Sarcone turned up the volume on the TV that was on in the background for one she hadn’t seen before, a pro-Bush super PAC ad dissing Rubio. Her husband Nick, 34, turned up the blender to its screaming, highest speed. Nick Sarcone is a registered Democrat. He is voting for Hillary Clinton. “All you hear about pretty much on the news is the Republican side of the world and Trump and stuff — I get annoyed,” he said later, when his wife wasn’t around. “The commercials get old.”

The Sarcones are what Betsy calls “split”: In the great Matalin/Carville tradition of romance, they agree on pretty much nothing when it comes to politics. “As the country has gotten more polarized on the issues, I think we probably have too,” Nick said.

A Bernie Sanders ad came on, then a pro-Rubio one, as Lydia, 6, and Bianca, 4, searched for socks and wrestled with coat zippers in the living room. A signed picture of Buzz Aldrin and Nick’s grandfather, who owned a New York restaurant, hung nearby. Nick’s Manhattan-born mother met an Iowan in college and moved here, a transplant for love. Betsy, on the other hand, is descended from Iowa royalty: Her mother was the state’s Pork Queen in 1976.

A photograph of Donald Trump along a busy street in West Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 15.

A photograph of Donald Trump along a busy street in West Des Moines, Iowa, on Jan. 15.

Danny Wilcox Frazier/VII for FiveThirtyEight

Nick drives the girls to school — by the time they left the house in their SUV, decorated with Disney princess stickers, the Sarcones had, by conservative estimates, seen 15 pieces of campaign advertising so far that day.1 But the car was no escape; as it rumbled down Des Moines’ salt-encrusted streets there were more.

“Honestly, I don’t remember a season where there were so many billboards,” Nick said. “I think Ben Carson started that.” One with the beaming face of the neurosurgeon appeared — Nick estimates he has seen 10 or 15 like this — then a Sanders one, no portrait, just a picture of a buckled highway overpass and the slogan, “Politics as usual won’t rebuild America. Bernie will.” Betsy saw two billboards on her way to work, one Bush, one Carson, pushing the family’s campaign exposure up to 19 ads by the time 9 a.m. rolled around.

Nick, a criminal defense attorney, is also something of a politics junkie. He listens to Sirius XM talk radio when he drives to and from court, and as he carried a sleepy Bianca into her parochial school classroom — a life-size cutout of Pope Francis in his lily white cassock greeted the children by the main entrance — two pundits were talking about what might happen if Clinton loses Iowa and New Hampshire to Sanders.

Nick Sarcone at his office.

Nick Sarcone at his office.

Danny Wilcox Frazier/VII for FiveThirtyEight

Nick was skeptical of the Sanders surge in Iowa. “People who go to caucus are older and the establishment is 100 percent behind Hillary,” he said. But he was waiting for The Des Moines Register poll to come out. “I don’t know, it may be real.”

Facebook certainly thought he should be giving Sanders a second look. Sitting at his office desk, scrolling through his News Feed, Nick seemed a little shocked by the influx. “We’re up to like 12 that are just Bernie,” he said. “Every other story is Bernie, I’m not kidding.” One Facebook friend had photos with the Vermont senator from a recent event in Ankeny.

That brought the Sarcone family tally up to 31 campaign ads.

Other candidates were inundating Betsy; she estimated seeing eight Rubio ads on Facebook (though it might be more, since she logs on to the site at least a dozen times throughout the day to check up on house listings she advertises there). A new Carson ad appeared online that day too. Whenever she checked The Des Moines Register’s website, Betsy noted, it was plastered with Bush ads, and while she was mostly targeted by Republican candidates, she did see one Clinton advert when she checked TMZ. That meant over 40 ads for their household by the time workday Internet browsing was over.

Nick Sarcone, an attorney, looks at political ads at his West Des Moines office on Jan. 13.

Nick Sarcone, an attorney, looks at political ads at his West Des Moines office on Jan. 13.

Danny Wilcox Frazier/VII for FiveThirtyEight

Betsy is still shopping for candidates, and she’s made it a goal to see as many in person as she can, the Iowan’s prerogative. “I really liked Chris Christie,” she said of the New Jersey governor who she’d seen with her parents. He “has the part of Donald Trump that I like, which is being very straightforward and not mincing words,” she said, but she liked that Christie wasn’t “a complete asshole.”

Nick had actually gone to the Christie event with her, as well as to a Santorum one that happened to be on their anniversary, December 29. “Isn’t that really sad?” Betsy said, laughing. The pair got married five days before the 2008 caucuses, and Betsy recommends not getting hitched in an election year if you are a split couple in Iowa. Nick also remembers the 2008 election cycle as a contentious time in their relationship. “There were more fights, like, real yelling matches,” he said. Those have lessened, partially because they’ve stopped trying to convert each other. “I gave up on that a long time ago,” Nick said. “When we were younger and drunk, I thought I could do it. But that’s not going to happen.”

Late in the afternoon, Betsy was driving to pick up the girls from school and then do a quick walk-through with a couple who were moving to Des Moines from Chicago. In addition to Facebook ads, she’d gotten an email from the Rubio campaign that day and had seen three more billboards driving around town, one for Carson, two for Bush. That put the Sarcone count at around 45 ads so far that day.

Betsy is intrigued by Bush, and tends to favor more establishment-track candidates over those like Ted Cruz who are catering to Iowa’s religious conservatives. She comes at her conservatism with a businesswoman’s point of view. Betsy got into real estate after the financial crash of 2008 left her laid off from a marketing job, and made a resolution to start her own business: “I’m never going to have somebody be responsible for my wealth again,” she said.

Betsy Sarcone finishes the day at her real estate office in West Des Moines.

Betsy Sarcone finishes the day at her real estate office in West Des Moines.

Danny Wilcox Frazier/VII for FiveThirtyEight

The work has been a happy slog, especially with the two girls (“I would be breastfeeding at an open house”). But now, working with three employees and looking to hire more, she felt anger at what she saw as unfair attacks on businesspeople by politicians. “You hear CEOs being demonized and that really bothers me,” she said. “I have a responsibility to other people to support their families.”

The girls, by now collected from school, tagged along on their mother’s house tour, play wrestling in the empty upstairs rooms as Betsy turned on the full real estate agent charm, talking over kitchen configurations and showing the new owners the backyard view, an actual factual cornfield, which the Chicagoans were tickled by.


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Back at home that night, after the girls had finished their bedtime negotiations, Nick made himself a peanut butter sandwich, Franklin the dog went berserk in the back hallway, and Betsy padded into the kitchen wearing her “I Love My Homeys” hoodie (more Sarcone real estate swag).

The two opened the (snail) mail for the week: two Sanders fliers, one Clinton, and another from Rubio. Betsy broke out the Christmas card they’d gotten from Trump: “Merry Christmas & Happy Holidays. We are, together, going to Make America Great again! I love you all, Donald J. Trump.”

“Bernie Sanders just sent me an email!” Nick shouted from where he had kicked up his feet on the kitchen table. It was his third campaign email of the day; he estimated that he’d seen at least 20 Internet ads, gotten a campaign-related push notification from the Register, and had taken a likely caucus survey that popped up on the newspaper’s site. Before the night was over, Betsy would see six more television ads. (The next day, while getting her nails done, she saw 15 over the course of her time in the salon.)

As Wednesday came to a close, the Sarcones’ final count was close to 90 ads for the day. That’s about five every waking hour.

Betsy Sarcone, a realtor, with her two daughters, Lydia, left, and Bianca, showing a house.

Betsy Sarcone, a realtor, with her two daughters, Lydia, left, and Bianca, showing a house.

Danny Wilcox Frazier/VII for FiveThirtyEight

Betsy poured a couple of vodka sodas, and pretty soon the couple’s how-we-met story was being told. They’ve known each other since she was in seventh grade and he was in ninth, but they didn’t get together until years later, reconnecting at her brother’s engagement party. They went to the same Catholic high school, come from close-knit families, and have the kind of crackling antagonistic dynamic that feels a bit like being in a live-action opposites-attract romantic comedy.

“Mostly we all have the same goals and it’s a difference of opinion how you get there,” Betsy said. “Everyone wants everyone to be better off — how are you going to make that happen?”

But, she said, with a smile in the direction of her husband, “I knew what I married into.”


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Footnotes

  1. The ones that Betsy accounts for on her drive to yoga and later work, on TV while I’m at their house, and Nick tells me he’s seen four ads when we’re driving in the car to school. ^

Clare Malone is a senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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