Reporting from Des Moines — Except for Jacob Fullmer, a 27-year-old staffer from a small town in Idaho, Mitt Romney headquarters here was empty on Christmas Eve. A former Blockbuster, with angled anti-theft mirrors lining the ceiling perimeter, the place had the feel of a hastily evacuated showroom. Staffers and volunteers had fled home for a short respite before this week's brutal lead-up to the first voting of the 2012 presidential campaign on Jan. 3.
Fullmer, a paid field staffer who works 15-hour days and says the thing he loves most about Des Moines is his bed, was trying to stay upbeat.
"Honestly, it's been hitting my dad and mom and me more heavily this week, because even though we emotionally prepared for it, it's gonna be different for them," said Fullmer, whose parents own a Sears franchise in Rexburg, Idaho. "For Christmas Day, I kept telling myself I would work to take my mind off it, but I am just going to shut down."
Political campaigns are magnets for idealistic young adults still unburdened by spouses, children and mortgages. They come from all over the country to Iowa, which briefly becomes the center of the political universe. They come to serve a higher purpose, to invest in their professional futures. But the hours are long, the pay is low and the feelings of isolation can be intense, particularly during the holidays. Many, like Fullmer, have given up apartments and have no permanent addresses. He is staying with a member of the local Mormon church.
Some work so hard they lose track of time. "I've only been here since late August or something," Fullmer said. "October or September, somewhere in there? Hang on a second. I think it was October. Yeah, it was, the beginning of October."
Saturday afternoon, Fullmer's sister, Charisa VanderSloot, called from Idaho to say she missed him. "I know he's very passionate about what he does," she said, starting to cry. "And we're very proud of him. But of course, if we had a choice, we'd have him here with us."
Last weekend, Des Moines emptied out. For the few members of the political circus left behind, the experience could be a little bit miserable. Here in the city center, nary a restaurant was open for dinner Christmas Eve. By Christmas night, dining options had narrowed to the Marriott hotel's restaurant.
Fullmer, a former reporter who taught English in Taiwan for six months and fulfilled a two-year Mormon mission in Connecticut and Rhode Island, knows what it's like to be away from home this time of year.
Though he received many invitations from Iowans, he didn't feel comfortable crashing another family's holiday.
"You don't want to ruin other people's Christmas just because my Christmas is ruined," he said, half in jest. By Christmas Eve, though, he couldn't resist the tug of family. He ended up driving to Omaha, about 135 miles away, to visit an older cousin and her three children.
There, he said, he played Santa and learned that many years ago, when his cousin was stranded in Idaho by a snowstorm, she ended up spending Christmas with his family. "What goes around comes around," he said.
It's not just campaign workers who can't go home.
For Alexandra Moe, 23, an NBCUniversal producer who is "embedded" in Iowa, the tug of family was similarly strong. If she could not be home for Christmas, home would come to her.
At the insistence of Scottie, her 5-year-old brother, her family came from Laurel, Md., to spend the holiday at the Embassy Suites hotel, where Moe has lived since July 30. Scottie brought the reindeer food.
"I'm just so thankful my family was able to come out and spend Christmas with me that I can't be disappointed they already have to leave," Moe said by email Monday. "Frankly, this way I don't have to feel guilty about having to refocus on work right away."
She has a point. The Christmas break — however lonely it was for some — was a blip in the calendar. By Tuesday, six candidates are expected to be back in the state, most of them on bus tours that will take them to each of Iowa's 99 counties.
Moe had to pack up her hotel room on Christmas night. No time to do it Monday or Tuesday, when she boards the Newt Gingrich bus, which is scheduled to visit at least 40 Iowa towns between now and Jan. 3.
Fullmer will be working in Des Moines, organizing volunteers and calling on his experience as a door-to-door salesman of security systems and religious educational materials to help persuade voters to support his candidate.
After Jan. 3, he will pack up and head east. "Some little state called Florida," he said.
After that, who knows?