Presidency 5: Eyewitness Account

Having become a Precinct Committeeman last fall (after being guilted into it by ColdWarrior’s constant posts), I first heard of this “Presidency 5” thing a few months ago.  Since it was in nearby Orlando, and I could save money by staying with family, I put my name in the hat.  You see, voting delegates are apportioned by county population to each Republican Party county organization, and my county distributed the seats as follows: 75% by lottery to Precinct Committeemen who registered for a seat, and 25% assigned directly by the Executive Committee’s elected leadership.  Eventually, my name was selected and I ponied up the cash. Read on for a first-hand account.

These eligibility rules demonstrate the difference between the Presidency 5 straw poll and certain others, such as the one at the national CPAC gathering: only Precinct Committeemen are eligible — and they have to pay their own way.  Rumor has it that some other straw polls allow any random Joe with a (third-party?) paid ticket to vote.  One campaign in particular has a reputation for bussing in a lot of supporters, paying for their tickets, and grabbing some cheap publicity with a “win”.  Putting in the effort to become P.C.’s, maintaining that status, shelling out their own cash — and agreeing to the loyalty oath — seems a bit, shall we say, out of reach, for the supporters of a certain candidate.

Presidency 5 was scheduled from Thurs, Sep 22 to Saturday, Sep 24 — but very little was scheduled for Friday.  This was to make room for the mini-CPAC conference, a separate event in the same venue.  The CPAC events looked interesting — Ann Coulter was the Keynote Speaker — but I didn’t attend those events, in favor of spending time with my relatives who were my hosts.

As I wasn’t staying in the hotel(s), I missed what I understand were many impromptu receptions and events in the various hotels by some candidates, especially Herman Cain and Rick Santorum.  I really only attended the official events; on Thursday that was basically the Debate, plus a “Faith and Freedom” Rally in the afternoon.  After standing in line for several hours and spotting some Tallahassee politicians standing in line with the rest of us plebians, I endured the TSA screening[*] and arrived at the hall.  (Don’t worry about the politicians; once they got through the line, they had VIP seating…)

[*] No cell phones — so no tweeting or blogging.  No cameras.  No electronic devices at all — which was a bit of a hardship during the three to four hour wait when you consider time spent in line and later in the hall.  All that “contraband” had to be schlepped back to the hotel room (or, in my case, back out to the car) beforehand.  Umbrellas were not allowed, either — and as usual in Florida at that time of day, this time of year, it was raining.  So, the sight of delegates trudging out into the parking lot to store their umbrellas — and then run back in the rain — would have been funny, if I hadn’t been one of them.

I was rather surprised by the venue.  It was a huge, flat-floored warehouse (I was expecting either a smaller room, or arena seating).  As a “regular” delegate (not a VIP) my seat was mixed in with all the other guests who bought tickets the day of the debate.  They also were not using Disney crowd management; even as one of the initial 25% or so admitted through the doors, I was directed to seats toward the back of the hall, in the center section — rather than better seats closer to the front but slightly off center.  Until they “opened” those sections and triggered a mad rush of “grab your stuff and scramble closer” — but even then the stage was a distant miniature from my final seat about halfway back, a little to the right of the stage.  There were several jumbotrons distributed around; these were used to provide a view of the Fox News feed of the debate, as well as for crowd noise management. More on THAT, later.

After spending another hour and a half getting to know my neighbors, Bret Baier welcomed us and asked us to please avoid applause during the debate, to allow for more questions.  You know how well that worked — but the techs had a plan: each time the applause got too loud or long, they cut the feed to the jumbotrons, which silenced the applause almost immediately since few of us could see the debate well, EXCEPT via the screens. (I can imagine the techs saying to each other: “Bad audience! No cookie!”  Pavlov had nothing on these guys, which made us the dogs I suppose.)

So: the debate.  I won’t go over it in detail; you probably had a better view from home than I did (thanks, jumbotron techs!).  But I will mention a few points:

  • Romney’s first answer showed the way to stay on message.  He batted away the actual question, and basically said, “and now I will answer the question previously posed to Perry”.  Cain did the same thing.  It takes a deft touch — you don’t want to annoy the audience by too vigorously avoiding questions — but you can get a pass on it, if it’s an obvious case of the press pigeonholing the candidate or unfairly playing gotcha.
  • People in the audience were rolling their eyes at the Romney/Perry back-n-forth over who said what in which edition of whose book.  Honestly, if you can’t press home an attack on Romney as a flip flopper, you need remedial debate school STAT.  The man has his own personal stalker dressed up in a dolphin costume, for Pete’s sake.
  • LOTS of grumbling in the audience over Perry’s immigration answer.  A few gasps of disbelief when he pulled out the leftist attack line: you have no heart.  You could feel his support dropping through the floor.  It’s sad, because the rest of his answer (actually, part of the exchange with Santorum during the next question) wasn’t terrible: boots on the ground and technology is better than a wall.  (I have my doubts, especially since the boots can be recalled but a wall stays put; on the other hand, no wall will stand unless it is defended by men with guns).
  • Johnson got the question on allowing flights to Cuba. That’s a charged issue here in Florida, and he seemed oblivious to the political implications of his answer in this state. Bachmann nailed him.
  • The “Booing”.  When Megyn Kelly introduced a (gay) soldier who asked Santorum about reinstating DADT, a few — very few — audience members could be heard booing.  There were no boos from the section I was seated in, but I did hear some from off to the left of the stage — and remember there were almost 6000 people in the audience.  What I heard from my section was a lot of grumbling and muttering that the Fox team pulled such a stunt.  What’s next: a 9 year old bald leukemia victim asking Newt why he wants her to die, by repealing Obamacare?  Does Fox think that this primary — or the general election — is really going to turn on DADT?  Folks in my area were annoyed at Fox for choosing this question, not at the soldier for asking it.  I wonder if the same thought motivated those few boo-ers: maybe they were foolishly booing Megyn Kelly (foolish because nobody would ever credit that motivation; since everybody “knows” GOPers are hateful troglodytes who fear teh ghey or something, anyone with the sense God gave little green apples would realize booing at that point was a bad idea no matter who it was directed at).  Anyway, it appears our suspicions of the Fox team were, in some respects, correct.
  • Cain: under Obamacare I’d be dead.  Great story which got a good response — but could also backfire. By pointing out his cancer survivor status, let’s just say folks might take a very hard look at Cain’s running mate.
  • Gardasil. Bachmann’s doubling down on the Jenny McCarthyism was not well-received.  Then again, neither was Perry’s obvious pander, when he repeated his misuse of the Right To Life catchphrase “err on the side of life”.

It was at this point that it started to become obvious that Perry was, once again, fading in the latter portion of the debate.  I won’t rehash that, or his embarrassing third attempt to go on the “flip flop” attack against Romney; the home viewer really had as good a view as I did.  One interesting factoid: at every single commercial break, Bachmann left the stage, returning before the cameras started rolling again. None of the other candidates did so.  I have no idea what that was all about, but she did it Every. Single. Time.

So, that was the debate.  I was a bit surprised that it ended about 10 minutes before 11pm — especially since the final question was so idiotic.  I guess they needed time for the talking heads to do their thing, before the 11 O’Clock news.

Saturday was the straw poll — but was preceeded by the standard array of speeches.  First came the introduction of the new Republican Party of Florida Chairman, Lenny Curry.  Our previous Chairman, Dave Bitner, lost his battle with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) on September 8.  Curry, who had been the Vice Chairman, was officially elevated Friday evening by vote of the assembled State Committeemen; this was not a case of “presidential succession”.

Florida’s executive power is divided into four separate and relatively independent offices that form the Executive Cabinet; Republicans hold all four — Governor, Attorney General, CFO, and Agri Commissioner.  Further, we have supermajorities in the state House and Senate, so the Legislative leadership is Republican as well — and everybody gave speeches in the Saturday morning session:

  • Lt. Governor Jennifer Carroll (who was also the Master of Ceremonies for both the morning and afternoon sessions).
  • Attorney General Pam Bondi
  • Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater
  • Commissioner of Agriculture Adam Putnam
  • Senate President Mike Haridopolous
  • Speaker of the House Dean Cannon
  • Paul Senet – one of Florida’s National Committeeman (e.g. delegate to the RNC)
  • Sharon Day – National Co-chair of the Republican Party (she’s from Florida)

The afternoon session began with a tribute to Dave Bitner, and a speech from his wife Wendy.  Then Lenny Curry introduced Manny Maruno (Mayor of Sweetwater, FL), who in turn introduced…Governor Rick Scott.  Governor Scott gave a short speech, which was followed by presentations from some — not all — of the campaigns.

Now, the seating for Saturday’s sessions was different from Thursday’s debate, although it was held in the same hall.  On Thursday, seating was (more or less) as-you-enter, other than for VIPs.  On Saturday, there were two sections: the voting delegate section arranged by county, and the “guest/observer” section.  You needed a delegate badge to get into the former section, and the ushers were quite strict about it.  Each county was allocated a certain number of delegate slots by population, so the Orlando, Jacksonville, and Miami counties had large delegations (150-200) while the smaller counties had far fewer (one county had a single delegate).

The following campaigns participated:

  • Ron Paul. Paul himself was not present; a surrogate spoke on his behalf, and presented a video. Reaction was quite tepid; wild applause came from the (nonvoting) guest section but the voting delegates were basically unmoved.  It was astonishing to me that, even when the speaker delivered an obvious applause line that should appeal to all Republicans and conservatives, and not just Paul supporters, the delegates sat on their hands.  It didn’t help that the speaker also whined a bit about “inclusiveness” in the vote/delegate appointment process — an obvious complaint that his supporters were in the back where they couldn’t vote.  But that’s because they weren’t P.C.’s. (Shoutout to ColdWarrior…)
  • Herman Cain. Cain was present, and gave a rousing barnburner of a speech.  In contrast to the indifference shown the Paul campaign, the delegates enthusiastically cheered Cain, with a number of standing ovations.  Cain plugged his 9/9/9 plan, promised no change for existing and near- retirees with regards to SocSec, and hit NatSec (“peace through strength…and clarity”).  A veiled attack on Pakistan (clearly identify friends and enemies, and stop giving money to enemies).  Not-so-veiled attack on the conduct of the recent wars: clear mission, clear definition of victory, and clear rationale for the use of force — if you’re not in it to win it, don’t get in it.  He then recited the first part of the Declaration of Independence, with an unusual emphasis: he stressed the “Alter or Abolish” part — and called for Republicans to Alter the current course of government and Abolish the current administration in the next election.
  • Rick Santorum. Santorum was present, and gave a pretty good speech. He was warmly received. Touted his record of come-from-way-behind victories, in deep Democratic districts.  Stressed that he did so by sticking to conservative principles, not by attempting to blend in — and then attacked both Romney and Perry as ex-Democrats.  Also highlighted the times he’s bucked the Republican power brokers and won — by sticking to conservative principles when others went wobbly. “Follow your heart, you decide — and ignore the media”.
  • Newt Gingrich. The Speaker was present, and gave a good speech as one would expect.  However, he didn’t seem to campaign for our vote in the strawpoll (e.g. vote for me not those other guys; I’m better because…).  Rather, he focused on attacking Obama.  I found myself wondering if this was strategy — or capitulation in the primary.  One funny line: “I want a do-over on the last debate question: I’d pick Marco Rubio as my VP”.  Promised if nominated to challenge Obama to seven Lincoln-Douglas style debates on various topics; no moderator, only a timekeeper.  (Of course, Professor Gingrich couldn’t help but sneak in a history lesson on the original Lincoln-Douglas debates…)
  • Jon Huntsman. Huntsman was not present, but his wife, three daughters, and son-in-law presented a video. His wife also gave a short speech.  In the video: Huntsman wrapped himself in Reagan’s cloak. Did you know he’s pro-life?  Claimed that he was “effective”, and those other guys are just loud and angry.  I did mention pro-life, right?  His wife’s speech was basically biographical in nature, with three main (policy) points: (1) Vote for Jon because he appeals to Democrats — and this, at a convention of conservative activists (2) Jon has tons of leadership experience, in private sector, as governor, and in foriegn policy. (3) And his wife is from Florida.  Finally, there was an endorsement video from Jeb Bush Jr (son of the popular FL governor).  The main points of that endorsement were — Huntsman supports the Ryan Plan and the BBA. Touted Huntsman’s tax code rewrite (no deductions, 8/14/23 % brackets).  Repeal Dodd-Frank, Sarbanes-Oxley, Obamacare, other business-killing regulations.  Free trade.  Bring the troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan.  Polite applause.
  • Rick Perry. The Governor was not present. Instead, we had Dean Cannon (FL Speaker of the House) endorse, and introduce Michael Williams (yes, that Michael Williams) to speak on behalf of Perry.  The Governor hosted a breakfast (6:30-8:00am) Saturday morning, and then left town to compete in the Michigan straw poll; I didn’t attend the breakfast.  I had planned to do so — until the debate.  It appears I was not the only one dissatisfied with Perry over the weekend: the applause for Mr. Williams was surprisingly weak.  He’s a Tea Party hero, but was speaking on behalf of Perry — and it seems Perry really burned some bridges.  Williams touted Perry’s Tort Reform law — and got no applause (??!!)  He hit a few points in defense of Perry’s immigration policies in Texas: (1) Perry opposed amnesty and fought against sanctuary cities, (2) spent $400M over 10 years defending the border, (3) no illegal immigrant in Texas has gotten a free education.   He pointed out that Perry has appointed conservative judges in Texas, and that Perry is the only candidate that served in the military.  Finally, he did some damage control in retiree-centric Florida, pointing out that Perry’s plan preserves SocSec benefits for current and near- retirees, while “reforming the system for younger workers” so that it will be there for them.
  • Michelle Bachmann. Congresswoman Bachmann was on the ballot, but did not compete. No surrogate spoke on her behalf.
  • Mitt Romney. Ditto.
  • Gary Johnson. Johnson was not on the ballot, even though he was at the debate.

The mechanics of the straw poll were interesting.  The chairman of each county delegation was given the ballots for each county, and passed them out to the delegates from that county.  After each delegate voted, the county chairman collected them and returned them to the presiding officer.  There was surprisingly little lobbying going on once the ballots were distributed — but here are a few comments I heard:

  • “If they didn’t stick around, I won’t vote for them”.  Seemed a little parochial to me — expecting a national candidate to spend three days in little old Orlando, from the Thursday debate to the Saturday straw poll, is excessive.  But I really think this was just an excuse, a rationalization, to avoid voting for the missing candidates (Perry in particular), and an excuse to vote for the ones present (Cain in particular).
  • A lot of positive comments about Cain — and not-so-positive about Perry.  Also, some bitterness expressed towards the party movers and shakers in D.C. (by the local party operatives!) about pushing both Romney and Perry and “prematurely attempting to narrow the field”.

There was a brief delay, during which a Palin impersonator did her routine on the main stage followed by a W impersonator.  Both poked good-natured fun at their target, and it was taken in good humor by the delegates.  Then, there followed the reading of the roll.  This was similar to the vote-casting at national conventions (“The great state of Alabama, home of blah and blah, proudly casts 27 votes for the next President of the United States, Bob Smith!!!”) except the number of votes reported was just that: the number of votes that particular county was allowed to cast, not who the votes were cast for.  That is: “Alachua county, home of <insert long-winded list of assorted attractions here>, reports that ## votes have been properly cast and securely delivered to the presiding officer for recording, validation, and tabulation.”

You all know the result: when Cain was announced as the winner — especially by such a large margin — the delegates leaped to their feat with a roar of approval and applause.  It was overwhelming; I think even those who voted for other candidates (save Perry) were happy with the result.

Afterwards, the delegates were invited to “City Walk” (a local nightspot) where all the bars had waived cover charges and discounted drinks for the delegates.  But…I had relatives waiting.

Speaking solely for myself, as an individual voter and not as a P.C. or representative of the party, I like Cain and would be ecstatic if he won the election in November — but I’m not sure he’ll make it to November.  I worry that the conservative vote is being split, leaving Romney a path to the nomination with the establishment vote and “operation chaos” democratic votes in the open primaries.  In many ways, Perry seemed to be the best way to knock Romney out, but his disappointing-in-the-extreme performance in the debates makes me worry about the general election debates against Obama, and makes it less and less likely he’ll actually be able to close the door on Romney.  I think the Gardasil thing no longer has any legs, thanks to Bachmann’s overreach (nobody was talking about that issue at P5), but Perry has GOT to come up with a way to defend his illegal immigration position without insulting the rest of us (because everybody was talking about this).  I can defend Perry’s policy, even if I don’t agree with it — why can’t Perry?  I can make a coherent attack on Romney as a serial flip flopper without getting tongue-tied, and I don’t have a huge staff of campaign operatives preparing briefing papers for me — why can’t Perry?

I think a lot of delegates felt the same way: perhaps they came to Presidency 5 planning to support Perry, even wanting to support Perry — but after the debate just couldn’t do it, and so chose instead to ‘follow their heart’ and vote Cain.

It was an interesting weekend, and I’m glad I was able to participate.  I wouldn’t have had the opportunity, if I had not previously made the decision to become a Precinct Committeeman — so listen to ColdWarrior and go sign up!  You never know what doors that might open.  I think the delegates’ reaction to the debate, and the message of the straw poll, was three-fold: first, that they voted their heart.  They really liked what Cain had to say, and discounted the media reports, current poll standings, and worries about outside opinions on who is or is not “electable”, and who can or can not “beat Obama”.  Second, I think they wanted to send a message to the beltway solons, the D.C. RNC operatives, and the media that it is too early to declare the race a two-man affair.  And third, I think they wanted to warn Perry not to take the activist base for granted — and to stop the leftist-like personal attacks on the very people he is trying to convince to vote for him.