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What it's Like to Live in Iowa During a Presidential Election

Undecided Iowan Voter Comes Under Assault By Ads 2:11

DES MOINES, IOWA - Call it a blessing or a burden: Living in Iowa every presidential cycle.

Iowans have the unprecedented role of having the nation's first say about who the next president will be. But along with that responsibility comes a cost.

Never. Escaping. Politics.

Candidates swarm the state, willing to travel to all 99 counties and visit the smallest of towns to find any potential supporter.

For instance, a whopping $70 million worth of political TV advertisements had been bought on Iowa airwaves as of last week.

What does that look like? It's enough to make Iowans long for a return to the days of too many awkward Viagra ads and low-budget local car dealer commercials.

When Maggie Hibbs, a twenty-something professional in Des Moines, watched the evening news recently, she couldn't believe what she saw.

"Every single ad was a political ad. Except there was one for Jimmy Fallon," Hibbs said.

Although she loves politics, even interning with Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2008, she said the crush of presidential chatter is overwhelming.

"I think the thing that's most frustrating is the sheer quantity of ads," Hibbs said. "It's not the ads themselves."

And the bombardment isn't just over the airwaves. Candidates and their supporters reach potential supporters via mail, on the telephone, on the radio, online and the old-fashioned knock on the door.

Welcome to the life of Adam Freed, an attorney in Des Moines who is still undecided on which Republican candidate he's going to support on February 1. Because he's politically active, having caucused and voted in every presidential election when he's been eligible -- combined with the fact that he's undecided -- he is a prime target for political campaigns.

Adam Freed Matt Rivera / NBC News

Campaigns are doing everything they can to ensure they not only get voters' verbal support but that their backers are motivated enough to come out and caucus on a school night. The candidates are spending millions of dollars to reach a small fraction of the 1.9 million registered voters. In 2012, only 121,501 Republicans caucused, while 239,872 Democrats did in 2008.

But the campaigns believe that each vote is critical.

During Freed's 20 minute drive to and from work, he will sometimes listen to conservative talk radio, where presidential politics dominates the shows as well as the ads.

The first commercial that aired during Rush Limbaugh's show Tuesday afternoon came from Sen. Ted Cruz's campaign, highlighting Limbaugh's own words about the GOP field. "It was Marco Rubio that was a member of the Gang of Eight and it was Ted Cruz that wasn't," Limbaugh said in the ad.

The very next commercial, paid for by pro-Huckabee superPAC Americans United for Values, slammed Cruz's faith. "I also heard he gives less than 1 percent to charity and church. He doesn't tithe? I heard he's a millionaire," a woman muses in the spot.

After a few minutes of Limbaugh's program, another commercial break featured yet another ad -- this one for Carly Fiorina.

Before pulling into his suburban West Des Moines driveway, Freed lets us in on a secret: listen to a radio station that doesn't air any commercials. "If you want to avoid political ads here in Iowa, listen to 107.1, the local Christian radio station," he said.

But walking into the sanctuary of his home where he lives with his wife and three children, there's no escaping politics.

The day's mail includes five high-gloss mailers of varying size and production quality, bringing the four-day total of political ads received in his mailbox to 16. Every candidate is represented except for Rick Santorum, the now-flagging onetime Iowa winner whom Freed caucused for in 2012, and Ohio Governor John Kasich, who is not contesting Iowa and instead placing his bets on New Hampshire.

Three of the mailers were for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who is campaigning heavily in the state with his eye on a first place finish.

Right to Rise, the super PAC backing Jeb Bush that has raised more than $100 million, was represented in three of the mailers. Only one piece of mail expressed support for Bush, while the other two critiqued his rivals. One attacked New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, while the other attacked both Christie and Kasich, two candidates appealing to the same fiscally-oriented moderate Republicans.

Jeb Bush campaign flyer, Des Moines, Iowa 2016 Matt Rivera / NBC News

"I have not read a single one of these. I usually look and see who they're from and throw them in the garbage," Freed said. "They don't really have much impact on me. The debates and those sort of actual informative policy discussions are going to have a lot more influence on me."

Sitting down to watch 30 minutes of network television, Freed had the same experience as Hibbs. Almost every single commercial was a political ad, with both parties equally over-saturating the airwaves.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was well-represented on the screen. Freed saw three pro-Marco Rubio ads mixed in with two anti-Rubio spots bought by Right to Rise. An ad aired for Cruz as well.

But two Democratic candidates dominated the 4:00 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. block with four advertisements by Hillary Clinton and four by Bernie Sanders, including at least one 60-second ad from each.

Even with the sheer quantity of political TV ads, Freed, who loves politics and has been active in the Republican party for most of his adult life -- including a five-year stint working for Sen. Chuck Grassley in Washington, D.C. -- said he doesn't fast-forward through the commercial breaks.

"I kinda like to listen to them," Freed said. "I kind of find them entertaining."

Largely missing from Freed's contact with the campaigns is Donald Trump.

Freed is not a Trump supporter. He doesn't think Trump could beat a Democrat and as a Christian, he says Trump has "a potentially damaging effect" on people of his own faith because of the way he talks about immigrants and Muslims.

Still, that didn't stop Trump's campaign from calling Freed last week and urging him to attend a Trump rally in Ames, Iowa, 45 minutes from his home.

The reason Trump's presence isn't heavily felt is that he has spent little money in Iowa. Trump has only spent money in the state since the beginning of January, and six campaigns have spent more than him on TV ads as of last week.

Even if the constant blizzard of political engagement is exhausting, a major upside to the process is that Freed can meet almost any candidate he'd like. In fact, he's met Christie, Fiorina, Kasich, Huckabee, Santorum, as well as former Texas Governor Rick Perry and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker before they dropped out.

One of the few people he hasn't met is Rubio, the one candidate he's most interested in.

But it's the week before the caucuses and Rubio is just a ten minute drive away.

Freed, his wife Alicia and his three children drove to the Sheraton in West Des Moines to listen to Rubio's stump speech.

"We get so many emails so many phone calls so many voice mails that you can not possibly begin to read all of the information so coming here to meet the candidate person is by far the most effective way to close the deal with any caucus-goer I think," Freed said.

And it didn't hurt that Rubio shook his hand -- and gave the kids high-fives.