Mitt Romney’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination drew attention in March by offering an unusual and entrepreneurial fundraising proposition to students: Raise $1,000 and get 10 percent back on your investment.
In July, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, turned heads — and raised a few eyebrows among detractors — when she offered supporters a unique chance for a close-up look into her life behind the scenes.
Although it was not the Lincoln Bedroom, it was close to home. Contributors to her campaign would have their names entered into a raffle for lunch at her Washington home. The prize has an added power-couple bonus: Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, will join the meal.
“They are going to have people staying in Bill’s bedroom before this is all over with,” said Tim Potts, who heads Democracy Rising PA, a nonpartisan and nonprofit watchdog group that seeks to improve state governments.
Mr. Potts predicted that candidates will go to just about any length to fund campaigns in what is expected to be the most expensive election of all time.
“Given the system we have, it’s not surprising to see something like this raffle occur,” Mr. Potts said. “People want to be contenders, and that’s the pressure they are under. They look at this and say while it’s a lousy system [to raise money], it’s the system we have, and I’m going to play it for all it’s worth.”
Mrs. Clinton is not the only candidate to raffle off a meal. Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, offered grass-roots donors the chance to win dinner with him at a Washington, D.C., restaurant. The minimum gift was $5.
Republican strategist Whit Ayers faulted no one for pulling out all the stops for cash, given the expense of running television ads in an era when the Fairness Doctrine is long gone.
“It’s unusual in the sense that nobody else is married to a former president who can stop by and help fundraise,” Mr. Ayers said of lunch with the Clintons. “It doesn’t seem unseemly or nefarious. You use what you got when you are trying to raise money. If you happen to be married to the former president of the United States, you haven’t done a commendable job of funding a campaign if you don’t use him to make money.”
Campaigns and their respective parties are using creative strategies to attract attention.
In New Hampshire, the Manchester Republican Committee drew criticism, particularly from gun opponents, when it offered donors who ponied up $25 the chance to shoot a host of automatic weapons of the sort seen in a Bruce Willis action movie. The event, dubbed the “Machine Gun Shoot,” raised $2,000, but detractors said firing off Uzis promoted gun violence.
University of Florida political scientist Daniel Smith said laws keep the fundraising system from running totally amok and that he isn’t bothered by the hype as long as the disclosure is good. He laughed as he dubbed the Clinton raffle “a little crass.”
“What’s next? Bake sales?” he joked.
Mr. Smith said Mrs. Clinton’s tactics are directed more to major donors who can afford to contribute the maximum of $2,300 for an individual.
“I don’t think the billion-plus that we are going to see raised [in the presidential election] is disproportionate to the amount of power that the person will have. I mean, $2,300 is a far cry from what we have seen in the past with soft money,” said Mr. Smith, who runs the university’s political-campaigns program. “I think it should be expected because it’s a very important office. Voices want to be heard, and providing campaign donations is one way to get your voices heard.”
Monica Notzon, a partner in the Bellwether Consulting Group, a national consulting firm that helps Republican candidates raise funds, said political observers will see a host of events this fall, each designed to make a certain candidate, particularly on the congressional level, stand out from his or her opponents.
It’s all about using the most creative approach possible, including Spam and Krispy Kreme doughnut breakfasts and seasonal events such as football tailgating parties — “anything to get away from the cheese and cracker and bad wine events,” she said.
“A lot of our clients play off of things that are unique to their state,” Miss Notzon said, noting that one congressman invites donors to his home where he cooks the meal, including chicken-fried steak and a special sandwich, for the gathering. “He actually runs to the floor to vote, comes back to his home, puts on his apron, resumes cooking and then goes back to the floor.”
She said the personal touch helps lobbyists and supporters forge relationships at a one-on-one level.
“Pulling some of the formality out of these events is important,” she said. A meal at home “offers a place where you can talk comfortably and debate the issues in an environment that regular people find themselves in every day.”
Mr. Potts wondered whether the elbow-rubbing, dining and schmoozing in the name of fast money doesn’t lead to corruption.
“We are crazy if we wink and nod and say it isn’t so,” Mr. Potts said. “People who give a lot of money to candidates expect something in return. That becomes corrosive. Candidates and public officials are just like everybody else. They have 24 hours in a day, and when there is a choice in whose call do they return, that choice will be influenced by who is going to give them money to get into office.”
He would rather see fewer fundraisers and more energy devoted to changing the system. He feared for what fundraising strangeness might lie ahead.
“Maybe we could have candidates sell dinner on EBay and see how much money they’d get,” he said.