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Bernie Sanders

The Rich Pitch

Analysis of the campaign of Rich Tarrant, Sanders' presumed GOP opponent in November.


Published February 22, 2006 at 5:00 a.m.

How fortunate are Vermonters. Who else gets their own television series that's short and to the point, and for their eyes only? You can see it -- you can hardly avoid seeing it -- almost every evening on most Vermont stations, particularly just before the local news.

To the sound of a haunting, vaguely Appalachian-style fiddle -- inspired, perhaps, by the music in the Ken Burns PBS "Civil War" series -- the screen quickly flashes on a red barn, and a green meadow with woodland behind it. Then we see, from behind, a tall man walking down a softly lit corridor. In a voiceover, a narrator explains that there is a U.S. Senate race this year, and that one of the candidates -- who but our hero? -- is tall.

In the second "episode" (that's the word the series uses), the hero's brother lets us know they were not born rich; that, indeed, the hero once stocked soda bottles to help put himself through school. Here the screen shows some young arms lifting a case of soda bottles. Then the brother says the tall hero came to Vermont to play basketball. We see a few seconds of dribbling and shooting, and then the written message: "Stay tuned, as Rich becomes an all-American."

We don't have to bear the suspense until the next episode, however: The hero's identity is no mystery. As required by law, he appears at the end of both 30-second segments, grown up and in business attire, saying, "I'm Rich Tarrant and I approve this message."

The "hero" is Richard E. Tarrant, the 63-year-old founder of IDX Systems, Inc., a medical software enterprise that was sold to General Electric last year for $1.2 billion. Some $100 million of that supposedly went to Tarrant, enough to finance a big new house in Florida and a campaign for senator from Vermont.

Hence our television series, which can be expected to continue off and on through Election Day, November 7. By that night Rich Tarrant, whether or not he is senator-elect, will have transformed Vermont politics, probably forever. Like the rest of the country, we're going Hollywood.

Hollywood, as it happens, is home to the company that produces Tarrant's commercials. It's called Strategic Perception, Inc., and is headed by Fred Davis III, a second-generation public relations consultant who in 1985 moved his firm from Oklahoma to California. There he prospered through "the use of motion pictures as a tool of corporate communications." Until 1994, Davis says, he didn't do political campaigns. Now, they're his primary bread and butter.

And no wonder. For creators of television commercials, there's a lot of money in political campaigns. That's because political campaigns are increasingly dominated by television advertising, which is expensive. So political campaigns are also increasingly dominated by money. If races are won or lost on the basis of the TV ads, then, all other things being equal, the side that can produce the best ads and buy the most airtime will win.

Rich Tarrant is buying the most time -- more than $100,000 worth already for the first two "episodes," and that's just to buy the time. Producing the commercials is the really expensive part. No one doubts that Tarrant will far outspend his Republican primary opponent, pilot Greg Parke. Assuming, as most do, that Tarrant beats Parke in the September 12 primary, he will outspend Rep. Bernie Sanders roughly two-to-one in the general election.

Because all other things are not equal, Tarrant's financial edge does not guarantee victory. Sanders has won eight straight statewide elections as Vermont's independent congressman. He is not only popular; he is something of a political legend, and right now he is far ahead in the polls.

But the race might well become closer. For one thing, Tarrant seems, on the surface, an appealing fellow with an appealing story, and a potentially interesting political argument. But without the money to buy all those TV ads, he wouldn't stand a chance. And unlike most candidates, he doesn't have to raise it. He just has to write another check. The law restricts how much everyone else can contribute to a candidate. But thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court (Buckley v. Valeo, 1976), the law cannot restrict how much the candidate contributes to himself. At the rate he's spending, Tarrant could easily contribute $10 million to his campaign.

Until now, no Vermont candidate has spent more than the $1.6 million Sen. Jim Jeffords invested in winning re-election six years ago. Until now, no Vermont candidate has advertised this early. But there is a twist here: Tarrant was not even the earliest candidate on the air. Greg Parke bought some TV time in December.

If Tarrant wins or even comes close, he will have weakened, if not destroyed, Vermont's sense of being politically unique. Vermonters like to think their state is different from all others, which only proves how similar it is. Texans, Iowans, Arizonans, Pennsylvanians -- all Americans, probably -- like to think the same of their states.

And they're right; every state has its little political peculiarities. But in none of them are voters immune to persuasion by expensive television ads. Thanks to town meetings, active local party clubs and the relative civility of debate, Vermonters like to think that politics here is more intimate and better able to resist the impersonal, manipulative realities of modern campaigns -- television commercials, niche-marketed direct mail, fraudulent "grassroots" organizations or shriekers on talk radio.

But for at least a decade, all those forces have steadily infiltrated the state, and Tarrant's self-financed, multi-million-dollar campaign should end the delusion that Vermont has escaped the horrors of modern politics.

As if to prove the point, Tarrant showed last week that Hollywood-crafted commercials would not be the only new technique he brings to the Green Mountain State. His campaign also created and financed what it called a "grassroots effort" to battle property-tax increases. The newly created "organization" seems to have no name yet, but it plans a mass mailing and has printed up yard signs reading, "Put a roof on property taxes."

There is clearly nothing "grassroots" about this; the effort did not emerge spontaneously from the citizenry. It is a gimmick invented by the professionals in Tarrant's campaign.

And that's the real lesson Tarrant is teaching -- that politics in Vermont is now as professional as it is anywhere else. It isn't that the pros haven't been here before. Both Democratic and Republican campaigns have used some of the best known, and most expensive, polling firms, direct-mail houses and advertising consultants in the past. But in almost every case, homegrown political operatives were involved from the start and made some of the key decisions.

Perhaps to give the impression that his campaign will not be an exception, Tarrant recently signed up a Vermonter and a Democrat, former Howard Dean aide Kate O'Connor, as a campaign advisor. But campaign manager Tim Lennon is an out-of-state pro who has worked for politicians from New Hamp- shire to California.

"I didn't know him from before," Tarrant says of Lennon. "I called Republicans in Washington and asked for some names. I didn't know anyone around here."

Tarrant explains that Lennon "runs the day-to-day campaign," and hired most of the rest of the nine-person staff. "He found them," Tarrant says. "He brought in a bunch of people."

As for Strategic Perception, Davis says his company may have been chosen in part because he had worked in the past with the Washington-based polling firm Public Opinion Strategies. Even with this connection, Davis notes, landing the Tarrant contract was not easy.

"It was a big, laborious process," Davis recalls. "I went to Washington once and Vermont twice. Three trips is more than it usually takes. I think they started off with 18 firms, narrowed it to five on next cut, and then to two finalists."

Davis says he was excited about the Tarrant campaign both because of his admiration for the candidate and because of the challenge.

"He's got a great story to tell," Davis claims of Tarrant. "How do you tell that story without boring people to death, because it's going to take a long time, and not give the impression that he's trying to buy your vote, which is not what he's trying to do."

His solution, Davis says, was a series of commercials that "looks nothing like a typical political campaign ad. Tell one story over a long period of time, make it sufficiently interesting, tell little bits of it in a pleasing, well-photographed manner. If you have ads of integrity, you show that the man behind them has integrity."

Not surprisingly, some Sanders supporters contend that buying the election is precisely what Tarrant is trying to do. It's even less surprising that Tarrant and his supporters have a different take.

"Self-financed candidates never put it that way," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the head of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania and author of several books on campaigns. "But the fact is, if you have endless funds at your disposal, you have a lot of advantages."

Not that the richest candidate always wins. Michael Huffington spent $28 million of his own to lose to Sen. Diane Feinstein in California in 1994. Steve Forbes spent $38 million failing to win the Republican Presidential nomination in 1996, and even more to lose again in 2000.

"But often they win," Jamieson notes, pointing to Minnesota Sen. Mark Dayton, the department store heir who financed his own campaign in 2000; New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine, who put up most of the $60 million he spent to win a U.S. Senate race in 2000; and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who spent $82 million winning his first election in 2001.

All these results raise interesting but uncomfortable questions, some of which might apply in Vermont this year: Can the American voter be bought? Are people so flighty that their votes can be influenced by the trickeries -- often the outright lies -- of political commercials? Can candidates be sold like beer or toothpaste brands?

People are not herd animals unable to make personal decisions. But they are social animals, strongly influenced by their surroundings. For two reasons, it might be easier for political ads to "sell" a candidate than for product ads to sell a brand preference. It is against the law for a beer or toothpaste company to advertise that the competing brand will make you sick. And the consumer does not have to make his or her choice of beer or toothpaste by the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November.

But truth-in-advertising laws do not apply to political ads. And every "sale" has to be closed by Election Day. If the "buyer" decides later that he or she made the wrong choice, it's too late.

For example, 10 years ago, after the Montana Legislature weakened the state's water-pollution laws, polls showed that a citizen referendum to reverse what the lawmakers had done would win easily. But the mining industry launched a multi-million-dollar ad campaign, much of it deceptive, and defeated the referendum. Months later, polling demonstrated that, once again, most Montanans thought their water-pollution laws were too weak. Many of those who had voted against the referendum seemed to know they had been fooled. But there was nothing they could do about it.

Abraham Lincoln may have been right, back in 1865, about no one being able to fool all of the people all of the time. But someone who can fool a few of the people for a few weeks in the autumn can win an election.

The presence of a self-financing millionaire candidate introduces the possibility, rarely mentioned in public, that the candidate could be getting filched. Call it the Forbes effect.

After Steve Forbes' failure in 1996, it was obvious that he could never win the presidency. It wasn't just that his policy positions were unpopular. He simply was not a competent candidate. He was boring. He lacked anything approaching the common touch.

But he ran again and spent millions, with the help of pollsters, strategists and advertising consultants who no doubt happily took his money. Some of them must have assured him early in the process that his campaign could succeed.

"Some of these consultants really blow smoke at rich candidates," confirms Doug Bailey, a veteran Republican political consultant who is now writing a book about the influence of money and television on campaigns. "The candidates like to think they can do it, and the consultants know they like to think that."

Bailey says there is little doubt that wealthy candidates willing to finance their own campaigns are sometimes taken advantage of by political professionals who don't object to profiting from a lost cause.

"The fact is, lots of them are recruited as candidates by the consultants," Bailey says, "just as the Senate campaign committees of both parties are aggressive in seeking people who come ready to spend their own money."

Though Tarrant is obviously ready to spend his own money, there is no reason at this point to conclude he is being played the fool, or that his consultants and campaign aides are unscrupulous. Public Opinion Strategies is a respected polling firm, and Strategic Perception's Fred Davis hardly seems a mercenary who would sell his services to anyone. He has worked only with Republicans, and his commercials have not been among the many accused of hitting below the political belt.

"You don't have to murder somebody," Davis says. "You turn off as many voters as you gain. It's not unlike selling a Ford truck or a Chevy truck. You contrast the two. Over a period of 11 months, I think people are going to look at the story, the character, the person of Rich Tarrant and say, that's the kind of person I want to be my senator. We don't have to have an unholy blood-letting."

But experience shows that candidates who are behind after Labor Day attack their opponents. "That's what they do if they want to win," said Jamieson of the Annenberg Public Policy Center.

Tarrant's problem will be that there seems to be no grounds for attacking Sanders over the ethical, financial or personal indiscretions that often bring candidates down. And so far, the Republican strategy of assailing Sanders as "extreme and extremely ineffective," has failed, probably because it's inaccurate. For a minority congressman, Sanders has been reasonably effective in the House of Representatives, and while his policy preferences are clearly left of center, they are not out of the mainstream. He still calls himself a socialist, but he isn't. Neither Bernie Sanders nor anyone outside of Cuba, North Korea and the cultural anthropology departments of a few universities believes in an economic system in which most goods and services are produced by publicly owned enterprises.

Tarrant, or Davis, has come up with a potentially more effective tactic: contrasting Tarrant, who says he will be "a voice of moderation" and who has "no ideological agenda," with Sanders and his reputation for strict -- and sometimes grouchy -- adherence to liberal positions.

But this tactic can be potentially dangerous, too. Sanders can go from grouchy to charming in no time at all, defusing attacks on him as a harsh ideologue.

Tarrant insists he will run an issues-oriented campaign, and his primary issue will be health care, which he called "the biggest issue on people's minds around the state."

Tarrant thinks his business experience -- IDX provides computer systems for doctors, hospitals and medical schools -- gives him the cred to convince Congress to "get the uninsured covered."

There is some irony here. Health care is generally considered a Democratic issue. Furthermore, the centerpiece of Tarrant's plan -- allowing the uninsured to be covered by Medicare -- is not that different from Bernie Sanders' health-care preference. Sanders has long been a proponent of a "single-payer," government-financed system. That's what Medicare is, for everyone over 65. Tarrant would extend it to the uninsured, a step in the Sanders direction.

Whether running a health-industry computer company -- Greg Parke calls it, "being a computer geek"-- qualifies one as a health-care expert is something the candidates may debate. Parke also thinks Tarrant is wrong about health care being the issue people care most about.

"National security is," he says, "and the safety of our children." Parke argues that his four years in the Middle East as a military diplomat and three years in the Pentagon as a policy analyst give him the credentials on that issue.

Parke has raised a fair amount of money himself -- more than $600,000 -- but he has also spent a lot. As of last week he had no more than $30,000 in the bank. Neither he nor Sanders will have nearly as much money as Tarrant, and both can be expected to keep suggesting -- if not asserting outright -- that Tarrant is trying to buy the election.

Of course, Tarrant will counter-punch here. "I'm raising money from individuals in Vermont only," he says. He is seeking just $35 dollars a person. Tarrant insists he is not taking "any national Republican money," and will discourage out-of-state conservative organizations from campaigning on his behalf in Vermont. He will contrast this with Sanders' reliance on out-of-state contributions.

The introductory installment of Tarrant's TV series has a few more weeks to run. Even without a peek at the script, one can predict the contents of the episodes to come: The hero becomes a basketball star at St. Michael's, starts IDX on the cliched shoe-string, prospers, becomes a boss beloved of his employees, gives generously to charity.

None of this has much to do with being a senator. But at this point, Fred Davis is not even asking Vermonters to vote for Tarrant, just to know who he is. In another few weeks, rare indeed will be the Vermonter who does not know that Rich Tarrant is the tall, self-made millionaire who approved those messages. Money can buy fame.

But can it buy a seat in the U.S. Senate? Especially against a popular independent with Democratic Party support, in a state where the Republican President's approval rating is barely north of zero?

As they say in show biz, stay tuned.