Alyssa Cowan, a 31-year-old nonprofit production manager from Sacramento who scored tickets from Yang’s campaign for the July debate in Detroit, describes the civic-minded appeal of such contests: “I guess part of me is like, if more people are going to get engaged in any part of the process it’s going to be a positive, even if it’s kind of weird that it’s from campaign giveaways and stuff.”
The roughly 16 campaigns that have offered such prizes this year can thank Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 White House bids for elevating the role of sweepstakes in presidential politics. He gave away many freebies including “Dinners With Barack” — which, granted, were gimmicky but also “always incredibly successful at building lists of supporters and engaging supporters online,” according to Tara McGowan, who worked on the 2012 campaign and is now chief executive of Acronym, a political-strategy nonprofit in D.C.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton raffled off dinner and cocktails with her and the Clooneys, among other prizes; now, with a crowded field — and with candidates vying to garner a certain number of donors so they can qualify for each round of debates — it’s almost impossible to toss a buck at a campaign without running the risk of enrolling in a yoga class with Tim Ryan, committing to a whiskey tasting with Kirsten Gillibrand (who has since dropped out), or bagging a Nintendo Switch from Bernie Sanders. (Actually, that last one doesn’t sound bad.)
So what’s it like to donate — or be a cheapskate and not donate, as only your email address is typically required to enter (got to read the fine print) — and learn you’re being magically whisked away to debateland? It starts with a congratulatory phone call that the winners I spoke to almost universally regarded as a scam. David Torvik, a 40-year-old firefighter from Olympia, Wash., who attended the June debate in Miami on Yang’s dime, says that when he told his wife he won, “she was in disbelief, and my mom was like, ‘Don’t give them any of your banking info!’ ”
Reality often sets in when the candidates get on the horn. Kellie Nelson, a 48-year-old purchasing manager from Charlotte, says she donated to the Biden campaign thinking she was “going to get a sticker for my car or whatever.” Then, the next day, she answered her phone, and “I was like, ‘Holy Christ! It’s Joe Biden.’ ”
Winning doesn’t always earn approval from others. “You know that look when parents are disappointed in you? My co-workers said that’s how they looked at me,” notes Cowan. “I definitely got a lot more strange reactions when they found out I won it from Yang, because I think it’s me and one other person at work who are supporters of him.”
The winners typically fly for free in coach to the debate city and grab a taxi or Lyft to their paid-for hotel, which Cowan rated four out of five stars. “Usually I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m going to get fancy and go stay at a Quality Inn versus a Motel 6,’ ” she says. “So the fact that we were at this [Crowne Plaza] — I was just like, ‘This is great!’ ”
Before the debates, Nelson and her wife cruised around Detroit in a white passenger van with Jill Biden and her grandchildren. They spent some of the time talking with the youngsters about their shared affinity for Australian shepherds. “Being an aide to a senator or being a U.S. senator was probably a childhood dream many moons ago,” Nelson says. “It’s interesting to see these people who have such an effect on your life.”
Outside the debate venue in Miami, Megan Figueroa, a 32-year-old university project manager in Tucson and winner of Julián Castro’s contest, got yelled at by pro-Trump protesters, though with different messages. “One kept calling us fascists and seemed to be more interested in the economy,” she reports. “The other protesters seemed to be very homophobic.”
Cowan and her sister attended a Yang-sponsored happy hour at a bar near the Fox Theatre in Detroit, where they eyeballed a lone John Delaney supporter in the corner. “You know if you were driving by a Quiznos and they’re trying to get you to come in — one of those sandwich signs and people are spinning it? He had one of those and it said John Delaney.” (The dude was not spinning the sign.)
“I think I had like two Millers and, man, I was going to need something because they do not tell you that the debate is not just a debate,” Cowan says. “They shuffle you in there so early, and then they have opening acts.” The audience also had to practice applauding at the right moment. “They had a guy come out to teach us to clap after the commercial breaks, so it seems like we’re clapping the whole time.”
For normies, the star power concentrated at a presidential debate can be intense. “I’m not used to seeing people I see on TV all the time right in front of you,” says Torvik. “It’s like, ‘There goes Cornel West! And there goes Tom Brokaw and Al Sharpton!’ Just people who are not celebrities, but are not not celebrities.”
Many of the winners describe meeting their candidate as a major highlight of the trip. “There’s an air of calm in the room the way he listens with such compassion,” says Julia Johns, a 31-year-old ESL teacher in Denver who flew to Detroit courtesy of South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (but only after consulting the carbon cost of the flight). “He’s just an incredible presence to be around.” About meeting Castro in the flesh, Figueroa says: “It felt like hugging my primo, my cousin, someone I know who has my back.”
After the debate in Miami, the Yang Gang gathered for an after-party on a rooftop with an open bar. “It wasn’t off the hook, so to speak,” Torvik says. “Andrew himself I guess had a cold, and people were pretty tired.” He spent the rest of the night hanging with a Yang staffer at a place with live music and people dancing on the bar.
In Detroit, Cowan didn’t push hard to shake hands with her candidate afterward. “I appreciate him and I appreciate his message,” she says. “But in my older years, I’m less the kind of person who feels they need to meet people and get a picture with them.” Instead, she went back to her room and ordered food. “I’m on the West Coast,” she notes. “I never get White Castle.”
How, in the end, does this experience rate next to a traditional vacation? “It seems like to get access you got to be a millionaire sometimes,” says Torvik. “We’re just normal folks and we got to do this cool thing, so I think that’s good.” Figueroa put it this way: “Life is absolutely absurd, so you might as well enter a few gimmicky contests. Who knows when entering one will land you on MSNBC hugging a presidential candidate?”
John Metcalfe is a reporter in the San Francisco Bay area.