Buying a Movement?

So far, Gov. Mitt Romney has managed to win two relatively high-profile Republican straw polls, which undoubtedly help solidify his status as one of the frontrunners for the Republican presidential nomination.

Back in March, he won the Conservative Political Action Committee’s (CPAC) straw poll … mainly because he brought in activists specifically for this purpose:

Kevin Madden, a spokesman for the Romney campaign, said the conference volunteers were part of a long-term effort to build grass roots support. “These volunteers are the folks who are going to be on the front lines of our campaign across the country,” he said. “The investment that we are making here is going to offer a greater result as this campaign continues to grow.”

Mr. Madden said the Romney campaign planned to have at least 225 student volunteers at the event, with 90 percent of them living close enough to eliminate the need for housing or transportation.  … All the campaigns encourage their supporters to turn out for the conference and other straw polls. But organizers of the Conservative Political Action Conference said reports from students indicated that Mr. Romney’s was the only campaign providing transportation or hotel rooms. The campaign has provided small buses or vans for students from Michigan and Boston, two strongholds of support for Mr. Romney

A closer look at the numbers revealed that Romney didn’t do particularly well, but apparently the Romney campaign was pleased enough with the result to try something similar in South Carolina:

By midday Saturday, the upstate area was rife with rumors of a fixed straw poll. When I asked Sullivan, Romney’s state advisor, if the campaign was paying for supporters’ votes, he said, “No, absolutely not.” But he admitted to recruiting people to the polls as so-called proxy delegates, which he said was a common practice among the campaigns. The campaign of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani also admitted some “friend-to-friend” recruitment of delegates, but denied paying any delegate fees. A few hours later, I tracked down Lynch, a gospel musician, at his home in Greenville.

“We were delegates of Mitt Romney, so we didn’t have to pay,” Lynch said. Like thousands of South Carolinians, Lynch and his wife, Melissa, have been bombarded with direct mail from the presidential candidates. He sent back a card from Romney, saying he would like to help. Sometime later, he said, Slick, the Romney aide, showed up at his door, and told him not to worry about the money. “He came over and we signed papers to be delegates, so we wouldn’t have to pay the $15 fee,” Lynch said. “Is there a problem?”

And again it paid off:

Among the 421 voters in Greenville County, Romney finished first with 132 votes, followed closely by Huckabee with 111. California Rep. Duncan Hunter got 87, Giuliani had 35 and Brownback received 19. McCain received 17 votes. Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo had five votes, former U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson got three, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore each got one. Only candidates who have established presidential exploratory committees were considered in the poll.

In Richland County, 126 delegates participated in the straw poll. Romney won with 39.7 percent of the vote. Brownback had 13.5 percent, Giuliani got 11.9 percent, and both McCain and Huckabee got 10.3 percent. Hunter got 7.9 percent and Tancredo received 3.2 percent. Cox and a write-in President Bush both received 1.6 percent.

And just as at CPAC, a closer look at the numbers suggests that while he may be winning straw polls, he is not necessarily winning over Republican voters:

About 700 people participated and awarded the candidates one, three or five points. Huckabee finished first with 3,522 points, Giuliani came in second with 3,161, followed by Hunter with 3,090 and Romney with 2,972. Brownback earned 2,931 points, Cox had 2,456 and McCain got 2,027.

Of course, perhaps these efforts by Romney and his campaign are entirely legitimate and just appear to be a bit suspicious – not unlike, say, the $25,000 he donated to the right-wing Heritage Foundation, which favorably reviewed his health-care policy, or the $25,919 his campaign paid to a company run by religious-right superlawyer Jay Sekulow, who endorsed Romney around the time that his campaign was hurting from revelations of ideological heresies in his past.