Shoestring bids for presidency
In era of big-money politics, underdogs have to find creative ways to
WASHINGTON — So you want to run for president, but you're not the darling of your party's establishment. The big money and endorsements won't pour in. You won't be able to afford many polls or consultants. You'll have a hard time getting the news media to pay much attention to you.
And yet, you have a message to get out there. Or, at the very least, you want to heighten your national profile.
It can be done.
In this era of big-money politics, the "little" guys - the ones who can scrape together a few million dollars - are finding they can make a go of it in the high-stakes game of running for president. In interviews, some campaign veterans shared the tricks of the trade.
Rule No. 1: Direct mail is your best friend.
While Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican frontrunner, can rely on his and his family's big-money network to pull down a seemingly endless stream of $1,000 contributions, many from people who want to back a perceived winner, a Gary Bauer or a Pat Buchanan has to find his ideological soulmates.
The best way to do that is via the US mail. It's a technique honed in the conservative movement of the 1970s: Get donor lists to known conservative causes and politicians, and solicit their support. When someone responds with a check, send them another letter, and another. Some people will keep giving.
The advantage of this technique is that, if you have a message that resonates, your campaign will wind up with a large pool of donors with a high percentage of your money being "matchable." That is, under the federal election system, the first $250 from any donor is eligible to be doubled from federal campaign coffers.
The downside of direct mail is that it's very expensive. And typically, the money doesn't really start to flow in until relatively late in the game. Four years ago, the campaign of then-Republican Pat Buchanan wound up raising $27 million - $19 million from contributors and $8 million from the federal matching program - but much of that money came in so late it couldn't be put to its most effective use.
"It took a long time to raise the first million and a long time to raise the second million," says K.B. Forbes, a spokesman for Mr. Buchanan in 1996 and now a spokesman for presidential candidate Steve Forbes. "We raised 99 percent of our money through direct mail. The problem was the money didn't come as fast as we needed it."
Jeff Bell, a senior adviser to the Bauer campaign, recalls his work for Ronald Reagan's campaign in 1976 - when Mr. Reagan was not the GOP establishments first choice and therefore was an underdog.
"In '76, the campaign was broke for a while, and I went off salary; so did others," says Mr. Bell. By the end, he adds, Reagan had such a huge surplus, he was able to start a Political Action Committee with the money.
All of which leads to Rule No. 2: Marshall your resources wisely.
That means making tough choices. In the Bauer campaign, which has raised more than $7 million (compared with Governor Bush's $67 million) that has meant doing without private polling and relying instead on the publicly released polls to gauge how the campaign is going. Bauer does have a pollster, Steve Wagner, but he's been used for focus groups.
When the Bauer campaign put up a television ad in Iowa, says Bell, it would have been useful to be able conduct a snap poll right after the ads aired, to see if they had any impact on public opinion.
In place of polling, Bauer has put a premium on organizing in the early nominating states, Iowa and New Hampshire. According to Mr. Bauer's Iowa director, Loras Schulte, the campaign has about 14 paid staff in the state, with the state broken up into several field areas.
Bauer is also working the Iowa religious conservative network very heavily, speaking at churches nearly every Sunday, though in a fairly nonpolitical way. The explicit political work comes outside the service. Phone banks go through church membership lists, searching for sympathetic members and determining interest in issues.
Rule No. 3: Milk the free media as much as possible.
For conservative candidates operating on a shoestring, that means doing radio.
"Lots of local media markets have talk shows that are very happy to get a presidential candidate, and if you're pat buchanan it's a natural for you," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif.
Social conservative shoestringers also buy ads on Christian and conservative radio, because they're inexpensive (compared with TV) and the media don't pay a lot of attention to them, which means they don't undergo much scrutiny.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society