Campaigns don't help small businesses in swing states

Catherine Fields is the owner of Coffee Cat in Mason City, IA. Her coffee shop is around the corner from the Obama election office. She gets traffic from interns, and sold a few lattes to reporters passing through town to cover political events. But it's not enough extra business to impact her bottom line.

Say you live in a swing state like Iowa -- that means never-ending TV ads, lots of attention from the candidates, and dozens of campaign offices spread all over your state. So you might think all that activity would be great news for the local economy. But all that spending isn't trickling down to the local level.

Volunteers are filing into President Obama's campaign headquarters on a chilly Saturday morning in Mason City's quaint downtown. Just under 30,000 people live here.

It's places like these where the ground game in the presidential election is being fought hard in swing states, with volunteers knocking on doors and distributing signs on their candidates' behalf. But does this lead to big sales for Iowa businesses? Are busy campaign volunteers spending money on things like office supplies and coffee?

"I can find that there's a little more traffic on those days, you know, if there's candidates traveling through the North Iowa area," says Catherine Fields, the owner of Coffee Cat in Mason City. Fields' coffee shop is around the corner from the Obama office. She gets some traffic from interns, and she's sold a few lattes to reporters passing through town to cover political events. But Fields says it's not enough extra business to make a major impact.

Ask both campaigns, and they say it's important to have a presence in key parts of Iowa, where polls continue to be tight. But they'll acknowledge they're not exactly bringing in big dollars.

Erin Seidler is communications director for Obama's Iowa campaign, which has 67 offices across Iowa -- many of them in small towns.

"We think it's important to have a storefront with signs in the window, lights on and people working, and an easy way to come and volunteer for the campaign," says Seidler.

The Romney campaign has 13 local offices spread across Iowa. Tom Szold is the Iowa spokesman for the Republican National Committee. He says workers are mostly spending money on food and caffeine.

"In Mason City, there's a Jimmy John's close to the office," says Szold. "I know they run out and grab a sandwich and bring it back."

Neither campaign would let me interview local office staff on tape. But they did let me talk to volunteers like Darla Connell, a 66-year-old retired John Deere employee. She's among a handful of volunteers -- all older women -- making phone calls at the Romney office.

"One of our favorite restaurants is Jimmy Johns," Connell says. "It's new to this community; they have wonderful food and great service."

Of course, Romney has repeatedly referred to restaurant chain in stump speeches as an example of American success.

At the Mason City Jimmy Johns just down the street from the Romney office, workers Linda Harder and Leah Biebesheimer say they've taken orders from both campaigns -- including Obama's. They say they don't think there's been an increase in business.

Economist David Swenson of Iowa State University says even in a battleground state like Iowa, most of the campaign spending goes to TV ads -- not small businesses.

"We need to be careful not to confuse the appearance with the reality of economic activity," says Swenson.

And Swenson says the handful of local staffers who are on the payroll are trained primarily in one thing: "Organizing, organizing, organizing. And the word organizing means, Get free labor."

Free labor, from local residents, who would be buying things in their towns, anyway.

Comments

I agree to American Public Media's Terms and Conditions.
With Generous Support From...