WASHINGTON -- To Joe Trippi's way of thinking, television advertising, and lots of it, was as good a way as any to sell Americans on a candidate named Howard Dean.
Last June, seven months before voters in Iowa would begin selecting the Democratic nominee for president, Trippi, Dean's campaign manager, gave the go-ahead for a $300,000 wave of TV spots touting the former Vermont governor's candidacy. It was just a warm-up. In mid-August, Dean took his ads to President Bush's home state, Texas, with a $100,000 buy. Two weeks later, the campaign spent $1 million on commercials in six states, including Wisconsin and Washington, even though the primaries in those states were half a year away.
And so it went. As contributions to Dean flowed in over the Internet, some of the money flew right back out into advertising. When Dean's momentum began to stall before the Iowa caucuses on Jan. 19, Trippi poured on the ads with an intensity that shocked rival campaigns. With time on Iowa's most popular TV stations sold out, Dean's campaign resorted to buying spots on Iowa's WB affiliates, whose audience is barely above voting age.
Trippi resigned from Dean's faltering campaign when Dean brought in Roy Neel, a former top aide to Al Gore, to be chief executive. Trippi's departure occurred when Dean was sinking in the polls and had burned through most of his $41 million war chest.
It also raised a question: Did Trippi's aggressive ad strategy pose a conflict of interest?
Unique among presidential campaign managers, Trippi enjoyed a dual role. He was the head of Dean's campaign and a partner in Trippi, McMahon & Squier, or TMS, the Alexandria, Va., firm that handles Dean's media buying and has been associated with his political career since 1992.
Trippi has said repeatedly that he received no salary for his yearlong role in Dean's campaign. But that is not to say he left Dean's campaign empty-handed. Under an arrangement that is traditional in political campaigns, Trippi's firm receives commissions each time Dean's campaign buys a radio or TV ad. Through the end of January, according to a person close to the campaign, these commissions had added up to about $700,000 for TMS.
Although commissions are standard practice for ad agencies handling everything from soap to soup, the commission system has grown increasingly controversial in the political advertising business. As a flood of political donations slosh into local and national campaigns, commissions give media advisers a built-in incentive to spend more of a candidate's money on commercials. The compensation formula, in effect, rewards consultants for increasing the cost of elections, which in turn fuels the candidates' constant hunt for donations.
By advising a candidate to spend more on commercials, media advisers -- or, in Dean's case, the campaign manager -- can increase their fees. That "is a conflict of interest in my book, and a serious one," says James A. Thurber, a professor of political science at American University who studies the political consulting business.
Peter Fenn, a veteran media consultant, says Dean's free-spending ways "have to raise questions. They went through $41 million with only two states voting. And they got, what, 300,000 votes? Do the math on that."
Trippi, in an interview, reacted vigorously to the suggestion that his role presented any conflict. He contended that neither he nor his partners at TMS made spending decisions unilaterally. Major decisions, such as large ad buys, were put before a committee of half a dozen senior staff members, including Dean and Bob Rogan, his deputy campaign manager.
"I could have been outvoted every time," says Trippi, who is now working for MSNBC as a commentator. "From the very beginning, I made it very clear that I did not want to know about, nor did I care, what the financial relationship between the governor and [TMS] was. . . . As far as I was concerned, I did this campaign because I believed in the governor."
According to Federal Election Commission records filed by Dean, TMS received $7.1 million in 2003, most of it money devoted to ad buys. In January, according to news accounts, the firm handled an additional $6.25 million in advertising in Iowa and New Hampshire. Although the records do not disclose how much the firm received in commissions and fees, a source close to the company said it worked for a 7 percent commission, at the low end of a range that can go as high as 15 percent. As of last week, the Dean campaign owed TMS about $400,000, this person said.
Under Trippi's direction, Dean began airing his commercials months before any other candidate and kept at it longer and in more states. Each time an opponent went on the air to match Dean, Dean seemed to increase his pace.
But after his distant second-place finish in the New Hampshire primary Jan. 27, Dean suspended media purchases to conserve money for the Feb. 17 primary in Wisconsin.
Trippi defends the media strategy by saying it was part of a bold campaign to introduce Dean to voters and emphasize his credentials as an outsider. "We were doing something totally and completely different. For people to suggest there was some other motive is just ludicrous."