Sadly, I am not able to work in politics due to the fact that I find politics incredibly boring. Also, there are some rules at TIME about journalists helping candidates, but mostly it’s the getting-bored thing.
But finally things are changing. Political research tools are getting more sophisticated just as citizens are becoming less sophisticated, thereby transforming campaigns into sorority-house fundraisers. But since no one really wants to go to a hugging booth manned by Carly Fiorina, a bikini car wash staffed by Bernie Sanders or a bachelor auction where the winner gets a night with Rick Santorum, they’ve tweaked the prizes. Supporters enter a lottery, usually donating a small fee, for the chance to have a candidate do something stupid for them. Hillary Clinton called five lucky winners’ moms on Mother’s Day. Marco Rubio flew a winner to Miami to see him declare his candidacy. Obama randomly selected small givers to a party with Sarah Jessica Parker and Anna Wintour.
These were ideas clearly created by nonprofessional stupid-idea creators. Which meant I finally had something to contribute to the world of politics. Unfortunately, none of the presidential candidates I contacted were interested, so I took my services to Ohio senatorial candidate P.G. Sittenfeld, whom I know because I rejected his application to be in the humor-writing class I taught at Princeton, and when he asked me why, I changed my mind and let him in, and then he decided to take another class instead. The point here is that I taught a class at Princeton University.
Sittenfeld, a member of the Cincinnati city council, was down with the plan to do humiliating stuff for voters. He had already run a contest in which he mowed the lawn of the constituent who cleaned the most trash in the neighborhood. Not only did he forget to raise money; the mowing didn’t go well. “It was a sweltering day. The front yard was a very steeply sloped hill,” he says. “The wife was like, ‘This is cool,’ but the husband was like, ‘He’s not even doing a great job.'” We needed to take this in a totally different direction, one that did not involve a Princeton graduate doing physical activity.
To figure out exactly what Sittenfeld should offer, I sought advice from Joe Rospars, the former chief digital strategist for President Obama who pioneered these contests. He said they worked far better than he hoped in raising money, collecting email addresses and making Obama happy. “He gets to go to a normal-people restaurant and meet people who aren’t part of the moneyed and power elite asking for things,” Rospars said. He found that while tickets to a fundraising party with George Clooney worked great, C-list celebrities didn’t help. The chance to join a presidential conference call was not a big sell. And the free flight and hotel were more appealing than actually going to dinner with a candidate. This gave me hope.
Sittenfeld had lots of his own ideas, however, such as a culinary tour of Ohio or accompanying him on his first trip to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. He also suggested leading a tour of William Howard Taft’s childhood home. I let him keep talking for a while. Eventually, being an exceptionally smart person, Sittenfeld said, “There are obviously people who are much more of a draw than me.”
So I called Sittenfeld supporter Dhani Jones, a former Cincinnati Bengals linebacker and former host of shows on VH1 and the Travel Channel. I learned that Jones also owns BowTie Cause, which designs ties for charities, which people can then wear at his Bow Tie Café in Cincinnati, which he described as “a place for those who wear bow ties to be comfortable and share their stories.” Jones suggested either giving the winner a knot-tying tutorial or letting him sit in on a session in which he designed Sittenfeld’s campaign bow tie. Jones said he preferred the tying lesson. “It would cost less than running a whole set of bow ties for P.G.” That’s the kind of thing you feel comfortable admitting only at the Bow Tie Café.
I also got in touch with Sittenfeld’s sister Curtis, the novelist who wrote Prep and American Wife, who offered to help a contest winner write a toast, eulogy or love letter. She was also willing to use a winner’s name in her novel that comes out next year, a modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in Cincinnati. Which is strange, since it is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune would not possibly live in Cincinnati.
Would George Washington take $3 in exchange for powdering another man’s hair for him? Probably not, because that would have been considered gay, and people were very uncool to gay people back then. Then again, could any person turn down three bills with his own face on them? Either way, times have changed, and Sittenfeld is a man for changing times. Which is not one of his campaign slogans. His campaign slogan will be whatever the winner of the “Choose P.G. Sittenfeld’s Alternative Campaign Slogan” contest wants it to be.
This appears in the June 01, 2015 issue of TIME.
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