Players win, and winners play

Politicians' new favorite tactic: Give money and get a chance to win a prize. How did campaigns turn into glorified raffles?

Published August 15, 2008 3:12PM (EDT)

An urgent message from Hillary Clinton was waiting in my in box for me this morning.

"I'll see you in Denver," the subject line promised. "Dear Mike," the e-mail began, "I cannot wait for the lights to come up and the cameras to roll at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. When I join Democrats from across the country who are unified and ready to get to work to elect Barack Obama, I want you there."

How exciting! A personal invitation from Clinton herself to join her at the convention! But wait ... could there be a catch?

"If you contribute today to help us pay down our campaign debt, you might be the one to join me in Denver!"

Yes, Hillary Clinton is keeping this year's hottest campaign trend going -- the fundraising raffle. Donate through this offer and you'll be given a chance to win airfare to Denver, three nights' accommodations and entry to the convention for three events: Clinton's speech Tuesday night, Obama's speech Thursday night, and "one additional event at [Clinton's campaign's] discretion." (Presumably it won't be any of the Monday night speeches, since the winner doesn't arrive in Denver until Tuesday.)

"If you're the lucky winner, we'll fly you to Denver, where you'll be my special guest at the convention," the e-mail says. "And I'll make sure that you and I have some time together to chat."

Already, Obama has raffled off a chance for his campaign to fly you to Denver and meet him backstage, as well as a few dinners with the candidate. Clinton's joining "Leslie" from Tacoma, Wash., who won an earlier contest, soon for a dinner of her own. John McCain has been filling up the Straight Talk Express with supporters who gave money, too.

As gimmicky fundraising appeals go, these contests are pretty clever (though with millions of dollars of debt to pay down, if Clinton really raises as much money as she needs, the odds of winning the grand prize may be low enough that you'd be better off maxing out to Powerball). But there's something about the tactic that makes you think Ron Popeil more than Ron Paul.

Showmanship and salesmanship have always been a part of politics, of course, but this may be getting carried away. Yeah, sure, you can win these prizes without entering, but that just makes the whole thing seem even more like a late-night infomercial. Can't campaigns find ways to get ordinary people to participate without holding a sweepstakes? Or is Ed McMahon going to work his way out of bankruptcy as Obama's running mate?

Update: The Obama campaign actually just announced the winners of its "Backstage with Barack" contest (where a $25 contribution bought you a lotto ticket, er, chance to win). Something tells me the results weren't determined entirely by a random drawing. The ten lucky winners all come from states where Obama's focusing heavily -- Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Alaska, Montana, North Dakota, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia and Colorado (not sure the Colorado winner -- an Iraq war veteran, natch, really needs the airfare from Boulder to Denver).

By Mike Madden

Mike Madden is Salon's Washington correspondent. A complete listing of his articles is here. Follow him on Twitter here.

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