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April 7th, 2010

Politics and Wonder Bread

Wonderbread and Politics copyOver the next few weeks, candidates running for federal offices will be announcing how much money they were able to raise for their campaigns in the first quarter of 2010. The dollars that they were able to raise, and more importantly their cash on-hand numbers, will be provide us a glimpse of what each these campaigns will be able to do in the final months before the primary election.

There are a number of people who bemoan the importance that money plays in elections. In an ideal world, candidates wouldn’t have to spend time pounding the phone asking for contributions or sitting down with business leaders asking them to invest in their campaigns. As we all know, we don’t live in an ideal world, and having the necessary funds to communicate with voters is actually a necessity, not just a luxury.

Over the past few weeks, people have questioned why I believe that some campaigns are going to do better than others on primary day. More specifically, people question why I think candidates like Terry Branstad and Jim Gibbons are going to fare better than candidates like Bob Vander Plaats and Dave Funk.

To simplify the importance that money plays in a campaign, let’s try to look at the role money plays in a non-political way. Let’s pretend that Terry Branstad, Bob Vander Platts, and Rod Roberts are not candidates for governor. Instead, they each are known for their homemade bread. Each of them is very proud of the bread that they make and decide to sell it. The easiest place for them to take their product to market is one of Iowa’s farmers’ markets.

For political candidates, a county central committee meeting is the equivalent of a farmer’s market. In this environment, even the most obscure candidate is on equal footing with more established candidates. If an unknown candidate impresses those in attendance, they will likely benefit from the word-of-mouth promotion that follows these gatherings.

The same is true at a farmers market. An unknown baker will find more success at selling there than if he tried to mass market it. If his product is well received, the news will spread, and he will see his sales continue to grow. To be successful in both arenas, the quality of the product is the most important factor.

One of the mistakes that a number of people make in politics is adherence to a belief that primary elections are won and lost solely on what transpires at the farmers’ market. That might be the case in Iowa because the presidential caucuses are more like the farmer’s market than a primary. There have been instances when candidates have won primaries due to the support they received from the party faithful, but there are other factors in play, such as the quality of their opponent and the number of people who turn out to vote in the primary.

The Republicans activists that attend and participate at the county level are the backbone of any political party. So too are the people who are motivated to get involved at the local level by candidates who run for office. Yet, successful campaigns need to do more than just reach out to these types of people. Sure, they are the ones who help make inroads with their friends and acquaintances, but modern politics requires all campaigns to communicate to as many people as possible.

If we go back the analogy where Branstad, Roberts, and Vander Plaats are all bakers competing against one another, the winner will be determined by how many units they can sell and nothing else. Campaigns are also won and lost on the volume of sales – in the form of votes.

It is necessary and proper to have the debate about whose bread tastes better or is better for you, but at the end of the day, all that matters is who sold the most. Having been involved in the 2006 gubernatorial campaign, I can say that Jim Nussle baked a better product than Chet Culver did, but it didn’t matter. Culver was able to out-sell Nussle on Election Day.

In a contested primary, having the necessary financial resources to mass-produce and market your product is important. In the bread business, just look at the success Wonder bread has had. They put their product in a snazzy-looking bag with a catchy name, and then they run TV ads that show cute kids eating sandwiches that look like they came out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

Good campaigns are no different. They mass-produce their product. In politics, that means opening up multiple offices and hiring field staff. They also market their product, which means running radio and television ads and sending mail to potential customers. Often times, they do this with cute kids and images you might see in a Norman Rockwell painting.

Primaries are not taste tests. They are contests to see who can sell the most. As a conservative, noting beats a loaf of homemade bread. I like it so much that I have a weakness for spending a few bucks on a take-and-bake loaf of bread from Hy-Vee or buying a loaf from a Panera restaurant. While those products are well marketed, the number of those products sold in a day is dwarfed by how many loaves of Wonder bread are sold.

In the gubernatorial primary, it’s likely that Rod Roberts and Bob Vander Plaats will be limited in where they can sell their bread due to a lack of funds. While they continue to sell bread at the farmer’s market, Terry Branstad will be busy mass producing bread, stuffing it in snazzy bags, and telling everybody how good it is. You can complain all you want about the quality of Branstad’s bread, but under that scenario we know who is likely to sell more bread by Election Day.

To win, Bob Vander Plaats or Rod Roberts is going to have to sell more bread than Terry Branstad. It’s that simple. That means they too will have to invest in ways to mass-produce their product. It also means they have to be able to market it. It is doubtful that they can out-sell Branstad on word-of-mouth alone.

I hope this helps shed a little light on how I view campaigns. For the most part, I’m a big fan of the quality of bread that our candidates are putting out there. I just question the ability of some of these campaigns to sell their products outside of the farmers’ market.

About the Author

Craig Robinson
Craig Robinson is the founder and editor-in-chief of, a political news and commentary site he launched in March of 2009. Robinson’s political analysis is respected across party lines, which has allowed him to build a good rapport with journalist across the country. Robinson has also been featured on Iowa Public Television’s Iowa Press, ABC’s This Week, and other local television and radio programs. Campaign’s & Elections Magazine recognized Robinson as one of the top influencers of the 2012 Iowa Caucuses. A 2013 Politico article sited Robinson and as the “premier example” of Republican operatives across the country starting up their own political news sites. His website has been repeatedly praised as the best political blog in Iowa by the Washington Post, and in January of 2015, Politico included him on the list of local reporters that matter in the early presidential states. Robinson got his first taste of Iowa politics in 1999 while serving as Steve Forbes’ southeast Iowa field coordinator where he was responsible for organizing 27 Iowa counties. In 2007, Robinson served as the Political Director of the Republican Party of Iowa where he was responsible for organizing the 2007 Iowa Straw Poll and the 2008 First-in-the-Nation Iowa Caucuses. Following the caucuses, he created his own political news and commentary site, Robinson is also the President of Global Intermediate, a national mail and political communications firm with offices in West Des Moines, Iowa, and Washington, D.C. Robinson utilizes his fundraising and communications background to service Global’s growing client roster with digital and print marketing. Robinson is a native of Goose Lake, Iowa, and a 1999 graduate of St. Ambrose University in Davenport, where he earned degrees in history and political science. Robinson lives in Ankeny, Iowa, with his wife, Amanda, and son, Luke. He is an active member of the Lutheran Church of Hope.

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