The Dirty Little Secret of Presidential Campaigns You Can't See on TV

January 28th 2016

Kyle Jaeger

When Donald Trump announced his plans to run for president last year, not everybody at the launch event appeared to be a genuine supporter. Some were paid actors who received $50 each to "wear t-shirts and carry signs and help cheer him in support," according to a casting call obtained by The Hollywood Reporter. In spite of the surprise this report evoked, the act of misrepresenting support isn't all too uncommon, as I discovered firsthand at an event for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz this week.

Case in point: I attended a campaign event for Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz on Wednesday night in Des Moines, Iowa, and found evidence of a similarly misleading practice. The first three people I spoke to at the event, which was specifically intended to persuade Iowa voters to caucus for Cruz on February 1, were not actually Iowa residents. They were part of an unnamed organization that gave explicit instructions not to speak to the media, one member told me; and they were all bused in from different parts of Texas, rendering them ineligible for the caucus.

None of the three attendees, who wore pins and held signs in support of Cruz, would give me their name. I overheard one say to another that she had accidentally given an interview earlier that day and worried about what might come of it. The man who told me that a sizeable group in the audience had been bused from Texas joked with another woman that he should smother me with a pillow for revealing too much information. (It was very clearly a joke — he seemed harmless and friendly.) He repeated that I was "really good," referring to my skills as a journalist; in reality, I just asked basic questions and he readily answered.

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A staff member at the venue estimated that about 300 people had turned up for Cruz's pro-life event on Wednesday. The room was filled and the crowd seemed sincerely enthused by Cruz and the cast of endorsers who also attended: Texas Gov. Rick Perry, Iowa Rep. Steven King, film producer, pro-life activist Jason Jones, among others. It is distinctly possible that the Texas attendees were legitimate supporters, of course, but the secrecy of their function within the campaign and at the event raises questions nonetheless.

ATTN: reached out to Cruz's campaign for comment, but a representative could not be reached by phone or email by the time of publication.

Liberal opponents have accused the Tea Party before of "astroturfing" political events — spending money and bringing in outsiders to create an illusion of grassroots support. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said that the Tea Party was "funded by the high-end" and ThinkProgress documented examples of how conservative think tanks such as Americans for Prosperity and Freedom Work offered public relations assistance, including "sign ideas, sample press releases, and a map of events around the country," to prospective Tea Party organizers.

"The idea of paying for the appearance of excitement offends the belief that a political campaign’s fortunes should be somewhat rooted in genuine support for a candidate," The Atlantic reported. "The kind of grassroots fervor generated by Barack Obama in 2008, Ron Paul in 2012, or Bernie Sanders today is aspirational for campaign organizers."

"But, for politicians with a dearth of excitement, the reason for faking it is obvious: Phony support can generate buzz and media coverage of their campaign—which in turn could theoretically morph into real support, as voters start to hear more about the candidate."

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