The $425-a-vote caucus

A day with Mitt Romney is a reminder that the Iowa campaign is a case of too much money chasing too few voters.

By Walter Shapiro

Published December 1, 2007 7:13PM (EST)

The Iowa caucuses have to be a management consultant's nightmare. Just think of the wanton inefficiency of it all. In 2004, 1.5 million Iowans (about two-thirds of the state's voting age population) cared enough about the presidential race to cast ballots in the Bush-Kerry race. But only around 200,000 Iowans in both parties are expected to participate in the Jan. 3 caucuses, even though the decisions made on that cold Thursday night will go a long way to narrowing the choice for president. Put another way, the odds are about seven-to-one against a typical Iowa voter participating in the caucuses.

On the demoralized GOP side -- where campaign operatives speculate that as few as 70,000 Republicans could turn out -- it is hard to find a likely caucusgoer even at candidate events. After Mitt Romney spoke at Loras College in Dubuque Friday afternoon, I wandered over to a middle-aged man in a windbreaker who had been nodding and applauding in response to the candidate's every sentence. "So are you ready to turn out on Jan. 3 for Romney?" I asked in an effort to verify his seemingly obvious commitment. Adopting the same perplexed tone as if I had inquired whether he planned to run away with the circus, the would-be Romney supporter replied, "Oh, I'm not going to the caucus. I went to a caucus once and I hated it."

What do you do in business when you have an excess of inventory (campaign cash in this case) and a shortage of buyers (caucusgoers)? You offer cash rebates or expensive gifts with every purchase. The problem, of course, is that the antediluvian laws of the United States frown on directly bribing voters. So instead of sharing the wealth with Iowans (the economically rational approach), presidential campaigns squander the money on 30-second television spots, mailbox-clogging brochures, a Starbucks-like explosion of local headquarters, phone banks and out-of-state staffers.

Based on my barroom-napkin calculations, here is roughly what the campaigns in both parties will spend in Iowa alone by the time the caucuses are over. (Legal disclaimer required by the Honesty in Reporting Act: These numbers are not derived from official filings to the Federal Election Commission, which cover expenditures only through Sept. 30. Nor did I call the campaigns to try to ferret out real numbers amid all the "we're being badly outspent" disinformation. Instead, my government-certified methodology consisted of making flat-out guesses and double-checking them with two press room colleagues and a top political strategist, who all dubbed them plausible).

For the Republicans -- Romney (who is partly self-funding his campaign): $15 million. Rudy Giuliani (who has invested in a top-notch ground operation here): $6 million. Fred Thompson (who has to make up for his late start somewhere): $5 million. John McCain (who in his free-spending younger days erroneously believed that he was competing in Iowa): $4 million. Ron Paul (who has to spend his amazing swag somewhere): $4 million. Mike Huckabee (who finally has money flowing in): $3 million. Grand total: $37 million.

Now the Democratic calculus -- Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama: $15 million each. (These $15 million guesses are based on a massive television buy, enough staffers to conduct a house-to-house census in China and all the "why not do it, we have the money" spending built into Daddy Warbucks campaigns). John Edwards (who has to work around the state spending limits imposed by accepting federal matching funds): $6 million. Bill Richardson (who invested heavily in early television advertising): $6 million. Chris Dodd (who has nowhere else to spend his money): $4 million. Joe Biden (who has even less to spend): $2 million. Grand total: $48 million.

What do you get when you have $85 million chasing 200,000 caucusgoers? Sheer lunacy.

That is something like $425 being spent for every Democrat or Republican who attends a caucus. For that money, you could give every caucusgoer an iPhone. (On second thought, since a younger voter at an Iowa caucus is anyone without a hearing aid, the iPhone may be a bit cutting edge for this demographic.) Or you could buy a white Kenmore 18.2-cubic-foot refrigerator for everyone who shows up on Jan. 3. (This appliance is on special today for $424.99 at Sears, which means that it is precisely one penny under our caucusgoer budget.)

Since being president is partly a management job, there is a persuasive argument for rewarding the candidate who gets the most bang for the buck. And Romney -- by far the most economically successful business-school graduate to ever run for president -- seemed like just the candidate to appreciate this data-based approach to politics. And thanks to Marc Ambinder's invaluable blog at the we have the answer to who is the GOP's Mr. Frugality. Romney has lavished $7 million so far on Iowa, while Huckabee has matched him at the top of recent polls while operating on a skid-row budget of $327,000.

At a Romney press conference Friday in Cedar Rapids, I asked the candidate from Bain consulting what his professional view would be if one company "spent about $7 million and one spent about $300,000 and they got the exact same results in market share." For some odd reason, Romney refused to participate in my case study, saying tartly, "I don't have any particular comment on that." Romney was no more forthcoming when another reporter tried to follow up. "I'm not a pundit," the candidate snapped. "You have to hire the pundits."

But despite these flashes of annoyance, Romney is not waging war on reporters. In an era when candidates increasingly wall themselves off from the press (see Howard Kurtz's Washington Post piece on the increasingly inaccessible Hillary Clinton), Romney, in fact, deserves a small tip of the hat. Not only did the former Massachusetts governor hold that 10-minute press conference Friday, but late afternoon in Dubuque he joined his traveling press corps for pizza and a half-hour off-the-record chat.

There are press bus comrades, whom I respect, who bristle at the notion of a candidate for president ever holding off-the-record sessions with reporters. Their argument is that in the heat of a presidential campaign, journalists should not enter into agreements that prevent them from sharing with their readers all they know about what a candidate is saying and thinking. Also, since press access to a candidate is limited (unless that candidate is named McCain), it should not be squandered on self-indulgent off-the-record chats about, say, sports or movies.

My strong belief is that the insights that you gain about would-be presidents from talking with them in relaxed, off-the-record settings do improve coverage. If you have a sense of a White House contender as a rounded person, you are much less tempted to play juvenile "gotcha" games by taking a stray public comment and magnifying it beyond recognition as a window into his or her soul. Also in choosing adjectives or anecdotes to describe candidates, it helps to have seen them at close range in informal settings.

What is most persuasive for me is that if the press corps refuses to agree to these occasional off-the-record sessions, the inevitable result is that you see less of the candidate under any ground rules. When he got his own campaign plane after winning the nomination in early 2004, John Kerry was briefly in the habit of coming back to the press section to chat. When some (but not all) reporters demanded that all these conversations in the aisles be considered on the record, Kerry stopped talking to journalists for the remainder of the campaign, except during rare press conferences or interviews. And, for the life of me, I do not see how any voter benefits from presidential candidates becoming completely cloistered.

Walter Shapiro

Walter Shapiro, a Fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, is an award-winning political columnist who has covered the last nine presidential campaigns. Along the way, he has worked as Salon's Washington bureau chief, as well as for The Washington Post, Newsweek, Time, Esquire, USA Today and, most recently, Yahoo News. He is also a lecturer in political science at Yale University. He can be reached by email at and followed on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.

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2008 Elections Mike Huckabee Mitt Romney