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Cash-Strapped But Hopeful, Buddy Roemer Looks to Build a Base Online

BY Nick Judd | Thursday, November 10 2011

If you tuned into the Republican presidential debates last night, you didn't see Buddy Roemer, the former Louisiana governor. But if you were following along on Twitter, you would have seen him right there in the conversation, espousing nonpartisanship, bashing corporate and lobbyist influence in politics, and, yes, nudging Gov. Rick Perry, who was in the debate, to complete his now-famously failed answer.

In a campaign season where milquetoast former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty dropped out of the Republican primary early on, moderate former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman is in the back of the pack and Texas Gov. Rick Perry doubles down on a campaign gaffe by campaigning off of it, Roemer's message — reduce corporate influence in politics — has found no resonance in mainstream media. His insistence on accepting donations no more than $100 at a time combined with his lack of media momentum or an existing campaign organization has encouraged him to look online for support. For months, with what he says is a team of volunteers and no more than three paid staff, he's been trying to find the magic unicorn of modern politics: An Internet-powered grassroots base.

Before last night's Republican debate, sponsored by CNBC, Roemer told me that he would spend the evening on Twitter, doing the digital version of glad-handing around a campaign stop.

"Jill and I are going to tweet, she's my assistant, she's got faster fingers than I do," Roemer told me yesterday during a Skype interview, seated in shirtsleeves and tie with a stack of campaign posters peeking up behind him. "So I'm going to yell out the answers and she's going to type them up, that's how we're going to do it."

He's been no stranger to social media this year. Earlier this summer, he was so hard-up for inclusion that he actually stood at a podium somewhere in Louisiana during CNN's New Hampshire debate, recording answers to all the questions John King asked of other candidates and posting them to YouTube. He expects to have a physical presence in New Hampshire before the Republican primary election there.

"That kind of politics is 250 years old in America, where you would have friends, associates, volunteers, some paid staff, but they would concentrate on a geographical area. It's like you're running for governor of New Hampshire.

"At the same time, we're trying to do a national campaign using social media of various aspects to reach out to independent minded voters wherever they are," Roemer said, "and of whatever party they might be."

In a video released today, Roemer doubled down on that message by reiterating his embrace of the Occupy Wall Street movement, clearly hoping that the vaguely nonpartisan but sharply anti-corporate focus found among many Occupy protesters nationwide might help him get traction. (New Hampshire, by the way, is not a bad place to go for Roemer: As he also noted to MSNBC, independent voters can cast a ballot in the Republican primary there.)

It's not unreasonable to expect online donations, even small ones, to propel a candidate's campaign — which calls into question Roemer's suggestion that it's his $100 upper bound on contributions that has stymied his fund-raising. In 2008, Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tx.) — after years spent in pursuit of the presidency already, but while still regarded by mainstream media as a fringe candidate not worthy of attending many of the debates — was able to raise over $34 million for his presidential ambitions, nearly $22 million of which came in chunks of $200 or less. So far this year, Paul's campaign has reported $12.5 million in contributions, almost all of which coming from individuals, a little more than half of which — $7.4 million — came in denominations of $200 or less. In fact, the influence of the super PACs Roemer decries don't seem to belong in a narrative about his campaign war chest; the point about super PACs is that they can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money on a candidate's behalf, so long as they aren't coordinating with the campaign. This is a point Roemer himself has made recently, in coordination with Stephen Colbert's super PAC, Americans Working for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow.

Roemer, on the presidential campaign trail for the first time, has not been able to raise more than $190,000. His campaign also has $45,100 from the candidate. He blames a lack of funds for his failure to appear on the ballot in Florida and South Carolina, but the former governor's faith in the Internet is strong, fueled, in part, by Paul's past success.

"In 2008 he was the best in the field at the nonconventional campaign and towards the end of the race he was able to raise large sums of money," Roemer said, referring to Paul. "Look at me, three years later.

"It's taken me a long time to generate funds but I never thought that we would not have a good financial arm," he added.

Roemer told me that after about a year to get established, personal supporters should start to cross over into his camp. He suggested that he could raise $50 million for the Republican primaries.

"Social media has improved, it's a greater universe now," he said. "I'm a candidate with more than one issue. I'm out of the box, I'm kind of non-party-controlled so I reach across party lines."

Indeed, the promise is there; without any candidate and only ad-hoc, largely online, grassroots fund-raising, Occupy Wall Street's New York nexus alone has raised nearly $400,000. But Roemer freely acknowledged his small campaign didn't have the social media capacity it needs to gain wide appeal online. Despite a new video and that Colbert appearance, Roemer remains at the tail of the pack among presidential candidates where Twitter mentions, total followers and recent new followers are concerned.

Maybe that's a good thing: The guy who has the most mentions today is Rick Perry, according to 2012twit.com. The current understanding of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's strategy is that, online and elsewhere, he will give his opponents enough room to trip over themselves with little to no help from him. Each of the mainstream-media-anointed candidates seems to have taken a turn under a spotlight so hot it melted down their campaign's chances. A former Democrat who switched parties in 1991 and has lost his last two campaigns for office, both to reclaim the governorship he once held, it's hard to imagine Roemer doesn't have quirks that would emerge to his detriment during a turn in the media glare. Everyone else clearly having their own baggage — in some cases significant amounts — perhaps that's an obstacle he could overcome.

"Let’s face it… we’re running out of names in the hat. And Buddy Roemer has been waiting patiently on the sidelines in a grossly underfunded campaign, just in case everyone else imploded," Hot Air's Jazz Shaw wrote Nov. 8.

"But beyond all of the conservative side-show humor," Shaw wrote, "Roemer is a solid fiscal conservative who actually gives a compelling presentation on the stump when he can drag enough people away from the pre-annointed superstars to listen. No, I don’t agree with all of his positions, but I suppose I can say that about all of the candidates."

Which is perhaps an understatement; if Roemer was closer to the current ideological pulse of the GOP, wouldn't he be doing better in the wallet-size department?

I asked Roemer how he would respond to the suggestion that, given the current state of play, perhaps he was running in the wrong party primary.

"I like my party," he responded. "It's the party of Teddy Roosevelt, and Abraham Lincoln, and Ronald Reagan."

He added that he stood against excessive debt, a position that should appeal to Republicans, and played up his presidency of the regional Business First Bank, which, he says, never foreclosed on a homeowner. (On its website, a simulacrum of Roemer appears to offer an introduction, like a Tiny Michael Steele.)

The problem, he said, was a "habit" some Republicans had developed: "easy," "corporate" money. And then he threw in a little — what's the catchphrase of the week? Red meat for the conservatives? Well, anyway, at least roast beef.

"Now, President Obama is the worst," Roemer told me, "and he's not a Republican. The Democratic Party has all of these same habits. But I'm a Republican, and I'll start in my own party trying to make a straightforward case: The Constitution is important in America, but more important is your constitution, what do you believe in, and I have stated my beliefs on the record."

It's true that the Internet rewards humor and authenticity. In addition to fund-raising totals that make his credo ring true, Roemer has made at least one television appearance alongside Stephen Colbert on a unicorn. Is that enough to make a credible shot at the presidency? Absent a presence in Florida, probably not. His campaign manager told the Daily Caller earlier this week that they may explore a third-party candidacy. But Republicans also seem to be running out of options.

"... As I said, unless you’re firmly in Romney’s camp we may be getting down to Ghostbusters territory pretty soon," Shaw, the Hot Air blogger, wrote. "Who ya gonna call?"

This post has been updated.