The thing about a zombie apocalypse is that no one sees it coming until it’s already upon us. It starts out with an experiment, usually benevolent by design: an attempt to cure a disease, or study a monkey, or help fund presidential candidates who can’t raise enough money on their own. But without warning, things take a turn for the worse.
Last week the public received reason to worry that a new epidemic is upon us. According to reports from National Journal, a respected publication in the field of politics, and later expounded upon by The Washington Post, former Texas governor Rick Perry was pronounced politically “undead.” His campaign had run out of money. He could no longer afford to pay his staff.
And yet, due to a relatively recent political experiment known as super PACs, Perry’s zombie campaign lurches forward. He may have no money, but there’s $17 million from super PACs propping him up. Like a brain that can no longer coordinate with its body, Perry has no control over how this money is spent. But just the promise of additional ground support and advertising has allowed Perry to survive. Knowing this, and knowing other candidates with little standing can rely on the same thing, one must posit two questions: Can candidates in the age of the super PAC ever truly die? And what does a zombie campaign even look like?
Due diligence from the community required further examination and observation Tuesday in Iowa.
9:05 a.m., Council Bluffs: Two dozen men and women and one child huddle in a cavernous bar across the street from boarded-up storefronts. The bar has high brick walls, which would appear to fortify them from unwanted guests. Rain lashed against the windows. The door opened.
“It’s dark in here,” says Jeff Miller, Perry’s top handler. Until recently, he got paid.
The Perry specimen ambles in behind, wearing a natty black suit and belt buckle with his initial on it. He grabs arms, massages backs, shakes hands and signs autographs. He launches into a speech about having a proven track record. He flits about the room, karate chopping the air and pointing every which way for emphasis.
The specimen does not seem to realize that he has been infected.
Quote: “I’m pretty sure that almost every campaign I have run we’ve had a challenge of money. Most Americans have had a challenge with their resources, this is no different.”
Despite his low standing, the specimen appears to be in top campaigning shape — perhaps the best of anyone in the field. In speaking with those gathered, he remembers names and professions, winks and has perfected the “good touch.”
Still the crowd is thin, and not all Iowa voters. One came from Texas. Another table came over from Nebraska.
Deena Freier: “We’re family friends. After this I’m going to call his mother and tell her that I saw her baby.”
When asked if she would vote for him, she says she will, if he makes it that far.
12:07 p.m., Greenfield: Specimen rode in small green Fiat through downpour and a tornado watch, to a coffee shop in a small town.
Tells passionate story about his father’s service as a tail gunner in World War II and wonders whether the country has done enough in the wake of their sacrifice. Says if he were president the “will to secure the border” would be in the Oval Office every day. Reminds audience that Texas is the 12th-biggest economy in the world.
One side effect of a zombie campaign: specimen attacks more robust organisms. Says “yeesh” when audience member mentions alpha-specimen Donald Trump, and takes possible veiled shot at gestational beings Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz, saying some senators talk more than they legislate.
Perry holds up postcard and asks audience to check a box promising to “make a donation,” “host a house party” or “join a coalition.”
2:35 p.m. on the road: This researcher receives phone call from Tim Pawlenty, one of the last known subjects to run a campaign super PAC-free. He says not having one in 2012 was a mistake.
“They can sustain or elevate a candidate longer than they could naturally stay elevated, like political steroids,” he said. “Short version: No one should ever drop out.”
2:59, Iowa State Fair. Amidst the wafting smell of deep-fried everything, specimen ducks for cover from the rain on a covered porch. He stands in front of bright lights and conducts an interview with Fox News.
“Charles, Charles,” he pleads to whoever was in the studio. “We need to secure the border, Charles.”
Experts call this “earned media.” Unable to pay for much airtime, Perry must be on television, on the radio, or in the paper as much as possible. A woman on a bench nearby says into her phone without looking up: “I’m watching Rick Perry or something about to go on live TV.”
Jamie Johnson, a top Perry official, stands nearby and says he thinks the super PAC can pick up a lot of the slack with commercials, while Perry spends as much time as possible in Iowa.
“We did this for Rick Santorum four years ago,” he says, referencing Rick Santorum, a zombie from the 2012 campaign who, despite having no standing in the polls, was able to stick around long enough with the support of one millionaire to get hot at the right time and win Iowa. Santorum lost the nomination to Mitt Romney. He’s running again, having never really stopped.
3:28 p.m.: Zombie candidate’s handlers say he will not eat a corn dog. They have bad memories of what those photos look like.
3:45 p.m.: Perry goes on radio, repeats self. Ohio Gov. John Kasich walks by with gaggle of reporters carrying boom mikes. (Note: At this point, no boom mikes followed Perry.)
Group of Perry’s staff gathers around to watch his Fox News clip from that morning on an iPhone.
“It was a tough, combative interview, but he held his own, and we’ll take it,” says one of the women. “You can’t quote me by name, though, I’m on staff. . . . Or I guess I should say unpaid volunteer.”
Perry walks out of radio interview and ambles in a pack of people through the crowd. Takes many selfies with fans. One father yanks his young daughter away from specimen: “Let’s get out of the way of this f---ing politician.” (Researcher cannot say for certain whether this man thought Perry contagious. Should be noted that there is no evidence to suggest the disease is communicable between zombie politicians and normal human beings.)
A worker at the Des Moines Register tent, perhaps sensing the specimen’s weakness, hands Perry a lollipop: “A Dum Dum for a dum dum?”
5:54 p.m.: Specimen grills pork chop in front of half-dozen cameras. It appears the locals may have started worrying that there is no cure for what ails Perry. Onlooker asks Miller, Perry’s top handler who stands nearby, if things were as bad as they seemed.
Miller: “It’s good.”
Man in cowboy hat (Kevan Smith): “I thought it was getting kind of tough.”
Miller: “We’re turning it around, money’s coming in.”
Later, Smith tells researcher he did not believe him. “He’s being overshadowed by a crowded field.”
Perry finishes grilling his pork chop and holds it by the bone.
“I’ve turned a lot of beef people into pork people,” said Duane Dreager of the pork tent.
“I’ve always said that if it’s protein, then we’ll teach people how to eat it,” Perry said. No mention of brains.
7:45 p.m.: Specimen leaves fairgrounds for the evening with plans to return for four more hours the next day. He appears to have just as much energy after a long day of interfacing with uninfected humans. What is clear is that this zombie candidate can survive on a skeletal campaign if he chooses. What remains unclear, and will likely be determined in the 2016 epoch, is how long a Super PAC can keep a candidate alive, and how many other zombie candidates will soon be stumbling around the national stage. And for that matter, it is yet unknown whether a zombie candidate can live long enough and get lucky enough to win.
It is precisely because we do not know the answers to these questions that this researcher feels confident saying: Perry will not be the last zombie candidate we see.