Friday, August 10, 2007

Mitt Romney attempts to buy off Ames straw poll

This Washington Post story is just incredible:

DES MOINES, Aug. 9 -- As thousands of Republican activists prepare to descend on Ames, Iowa, tomorrow for the straw poll meant to gauge support for the GOP's presidential contenders, the event has all the markings of a historic mismatch.

One candidate, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, has assembled an unrivaled operation for the event: a statewide corps of 60 "super-volunteers," who have been paid between $500 and $1,000 per month to talk him up; a fleet of buses; more than $2 million in television ads in Iowa; a sleek direct-mail campaign; and a consultant who has been paid nearly $200,000 to direct Romney's straw poll production, which will include barbecue billed as the best in the state.

Facing off against this are a half-dozen candidates whose combined Iowa expenditures through the end of June did not match the $1 million Romney had spent by that point, not including his many TV ads. Tommy Thompson, the former Wisconsin governor, advertised in the Denison Bulletin & Review at a cost of $297. Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback has been luring voters to Ames by sending out "brown bracelets" to wear around town ("a great conversation starter with friends and neighbors"). Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.) is offering a tour of Washington -- dinner included -- to anyone who brings 25 friends to Ames.

It was not supposed to play out this way. Romney's vast investment in the straw poll was designed to outmuscle former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in the GOP's first real contest of the election, and to give Romney a needed early boost as he works to build national recognition. But his preparation may have been too impressive for his own good. Watching Romney spend so much, Giuliani and McCain dropped out of the straw poll in June. Romney plunged ahead anyway, setting up a mismatch of almost Gulliverian proportions.

What the heck was Romney thinking of here? Romney is spending $1 million plus to win this Republican straw poll that really won't mean much of a difference now since both Giuliani and McCain have dropped out of the poll. I can understand Romney's strategy here--spend the money to win the poll, and use the poll results to build a nation-wide campaign. But with Giuliani and McCain not participating, Romney's victory in the Ames poll will probably be a hollow victory--we're probably going to see more political pundits talking about Giuliani's absence from the poll, and whatever result Giuliani gets in the poll, rather than Romney's in-depth adulation of his victory. The key here is that Romney needed Giuliani to fight him in this poll, in order to increase its significance. Instead Giuliani is sitting this poll out, deciding to continue his own fight against Romney, in Iowa, after the Ames poll.

There are a couple of other interesting details to talk about regarding this story. The first detail is the amount of money Romney is spending in this poll. According to the WaPost:

But with so much money flowing, it is becoming harder to justify the straw poll as a reflection of voter sentiment, said Dave Roederer, the chairman of McCain's campaign in Iowa. Last year, when he was deciding whose campaign to join, he met with Giuliani, who was aghast at the practice of campaigns paying the state party for the $35 tickets that voters need to enter the poll.

" 'In New York, we call that a shakedown. What do you call it here?' " Roederer recalls Giuliani asking. "And I said, 'Well, I guess we call it a fundraiser.' "

Romney, a former venture capitalist and multimillionaire who has lent his campaign $9 million of his own money, has hired buses to travel the state, picking up supporters. It will cost his campaign hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay the entry fee when they arrive. Romney snared the prime spot for his tent -- space at the event is auctioned off by the state GOP -- reportedly by bidding $10,000 more than rivals.

[Rival] campaigns report seeing multiple, glossy -- and expensive -- mailings during recent weeks. "Glossy, big, die-cuts," one staffer said. "Autopen stuff. Really high-quality, high-class mail. They are filling Iowans' mailboxes."

A PowerPoint presentation prepared by Giuliani advisers predicts that Romney could draw as many as 24,000 people and beat his nearest competitor by 8 to 1. "The Iowa staff is massive compared to others competing in Ames," the presentation states, "and the addition of staff and volunteers from around the country will make this a massive effort."

A Democratic source who has tracked Romney's ad buys said Romney had spent about $2.4 million on TV ads in Iowa, beginning in February and running consistently since May. The source estimated Romney had spent an additional $2.5 million on campaign materials other than television in the state.


Romney's money gives him a huge advantage in a contest that is less about persuading undecided voters and more about bringing warm bodies to Ames. Officials with other campaigns have complained privately that some local party activists have said they would like to support their candidate but felt compelled to back Romney because of the stipends he was offering.

The Ames straw poll has become more of a contest on how to buy Iowa votes, rather than how to convince undecided voters to choose one particular candidate over another. What is happening here is that Iowans are happily taking Romney's money, and they may happily vote for Romney in the Ames straw poll, but are they willing to stick with him in through the caucus? If the Ames straw poll, or any Iowa poll afterwards, still shows a significant number of undecided Republican votes until January 2008, then all that money that Romney has spent in Iowa was wasted. According to this University of Iowa poll, there is still a third of self-identified Republicans who are undecided as to who to support. If the Ames straw poll also reflects this one-third of undecided GOP voters, then Romney is going to have a tough time trying to explain why he couldn't convince this significant block of undecided voters to choose him, even after spending all that money trying to buy their votes. This is also going to bring up the issue of candidates trying to buy votes here, especially since Romney was so willing to pay 60 of these "super-volunteers" a $500-a-month stipends to Iowans in return for their support. This Romney $500-a-month stipend is new to me. I can understand how candidates will use money to buy votes through television and radio ads, or even direct mail ad-campaigns, where the candidates will send autographed 8x10 glossy photos of themselves with form letters asking you to send them campaign contributions. But this is the first time I've ever heard of a modern presidential candidate offering cash to a voter in return for that voter's support of that candidate (I'm sure there are some historical references in U.S. presidential elections here). Are these "super-volunteers part of the Romney campaign staff? What specifically does the Romney campaign expect from these "super-volunteers" in exchange for their stipend? I would be curious to see how this relationship of Romney's paying his "super-volunteers" is reflected within the Ames straw poll results. Because again, if we still see a significant percentage of undecided GOP voters, then why did Romney embark on this spending spree when the polls were consistently showing a large percentage of undecided votes? Did Romney expect he could buy those votes?

The second interesting detail is that one-third of undecided Republican voters. If the Ames straw poll shows one-third of Republican voters are still undecided, this is bad news for all of the Republican candidates. It shows that the Republican candidates are completely out-of-touch with their constituents, who may be worried about the serious problems this country faces in Iraq, the volatile economy, the housing meltdown, and even the health care crisis. These candidates are oblivious to these issues. This can be seen through this large, undecided block, which is really nothing more than a "None of the Above" choice.

The poll results will be coming.

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