By Michael D. Shear and Alec MacGillis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, August 10, 2007
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.
Held at Iowa State University's Hilton Coliseum, the straw poll has traditionally been intended to bring the state's Republicans together in the summer before the state's pivotal midwinter caucus, raise money for the state party and give an early sign of which candidate has the strongest organization.
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.
Aides will not reveal details about his spending, including how many of the tickets Romney will purchase. (Every Iowan with a ticket can vote, though historically not everyone does. President Bush bought 11,000 tickets for his supporters in 1999. About 7,400 of them voted for him.)
But 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 latest ad went up on Wednesday. "Washington politicians in both parties have proven they can't control spending, and they won't control our borders," he says in the ad, which flashes a toll-free number for free straw poll tickets. "I will, but I need your help to do it. So come on to Ames. After all, changing America always starts in Iowa."
Romney is not the first candidate to spend a lot of money at the straw poll in Ames.
In 1999, millionaire businessman Steve Forbes staked his upstart candidacy on winning the contest, and spent millions in an effort to embarrass the front-runner, Bush. The Bush campaign responded by spending heavily, too, and survived the Forbes challenge.
But Romney is waging what amounts to a one-sided financial war, bidding himself up against candidates who have raised less money during the entire campaign to date than Romney is likely to spend just for the straw poll.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee had raised $766,000 by June 30, according to the Federal Election Commission. Brownback and Tancredo had each raised $1.4 million. Texas Rep. Ron Paul brought in $2.37 million. Rep. Duncan Hunter (Calif.) and Tommy Thompson raised $814,000 and $487,000, respectively.
They are waging spirited campaigns. Brownback has used inflammatory automated telephone calls to capture attention. Huckabee and Brownback have sparred about religion and abortion. And all have been to Iowa in buses, cars and even the occasional plane.
But 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.
Romney supporters receiving the stipends reject this in interviews, saying they decided to go with him long before the offer of money came along. "Oh, sure, it's great, but it certainly didn't make my choice," said Norma Adema of Sioux City, who has been getting $500 a month since April but said she made her mind up last fall.
Adema brought a valuable asset with her: a database of local Republicans she has been compiling for years from work on previous campaigns, including the Bush effort here in 1999. On Saturday, her e-mails to people in her database will help fill the "several" buses that she says will travel from Sioux City to the straw poll.
"He's getting a lot of criticism for spending a lot of money, but . . . when you don't have that name ID, you've got to," Adema said.
Romney aides say the payments to people such as Adema are not "walking around money," a term that once described the questionable practice of paying precinct workers to round up voters on Election Day.
"This is grass-roots organizing," said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden. "These are the people who arrange phone banks. These are the people who arrange door knocking." He said the payments are listed in the FEC reports as "GOTV [Get out the Vote] Consulting" because of the agency's rules.
"It's helped grow our organization and make our grass-roots presence stronger in the state," he said of the program of payments.
Some people in Iowa do not see it exactly that way. They note that while Forbes also paid ground-level supporters in the weeks before the straw poll, it is unprecedented to pay so many people starting as early as Romney did.
A new Internet blog called Iowa Values Not for Sale blasted Romney for trying to buy Iowa votes. "Some of these consultants are friends of ours. It's hard to blame them for accepting the money," the author wrote. "However just because he is paying our friends does not mean that our votes are for sale."
Jason Gordon of Davenport, who was a staffer to former congressman Jim Nussle, said he has been busy earning the $500 a month Romney is paying him, partly because he is unemployed and has plenty of time. He is helping oversee three phone banks per week in Davenport. A typical phone bank lasts two hours with five people, he said, and they try to make 500 to 700 calls.
Gordon, 32, conceded it was "a bit of a letdown" when Giuliani and McCain decided not to compete in the straw poll, because his and others' efforts on behalf of Romney might matter less now. But he said that when it came down to it, a big show of support would make it all worth it, anyway.
Plus, he added, "We should have the best party."
MacGillis reported from Washington.