Romney's Sandwich-Gate, the Movie

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Can a free lunch buy a vote? A filmmaker and former Obama videographer decries, via talking hoagie, the GOP candidate's "sandwiches for votes" program.

Sometimes a sandwich is far more than a sandwich, argues Arun Chaudhary.

Chaudhary, you might recall, was the first ever White House videographer, serving until August in the Obama administration; the White House's "West Wing Week" series was his creation. Before that, he did strikingly original film work for the 2008 Obama campaign. These days, Chaudhary is making movies and telling stories as part of Revolution Messaging, the DC-based progressive digital strategy firm founded by Scott Goodstein, who spent his own time in Obama world as the lead on 2008's innovative mobile program.

On Friday, Chaudhary and his firm posted what is by general admission a rather terrible minute-long video featuring a talking sandwich of what appears to be the roast beef and cheese variety. "Look," declares the film's hero, a hero. "I know we sandwiches don't speak up often, but can you believe these clowns? Just handing out our relatives like we's a bunch of common hoagies." Look closely and you can see the fishing line that makes the sandwiches mouth go open and shut. Goes the tag line, "No matter how tasty, a bribe is still a bribe."

What's the sandwich talking about? In case you somehow missed the scandal last week, on election day in Wisconsin Mitt Romney and Rep. Paul Ryan Ron Paul handed out free sandwiches at a Cousins Subs in Waukesha. Video footage of the event has the Republican presidential candidate telling the crowd, "bring your friends to the polling place. Get out and vote. And if you want another sandwich, there are more back there."

Local Democrats weren't amused. The research director of the Wisconsin Democrat party filed a complaint with the state Government Accountability Board arguing that the Romney campaign had violated state election law restrictions which prevent candidates from handing out things "of value," as in greater than a dollar, as a means of inducing someone to either vote or stay home from the polls. The board said it discouraged the practice, saying that "we believe people should vote because they care about the issues and the process, not because they might get free food or free beer. We give the same advice to Democrats as to Republicans." But the Romney campaign blew off the incident, dismissing the Democratic complaint "a laughable stunt."

It was the Romney camp's reaction, says Chaudhary, that really galled him. "We don't think this is changing the outcome of the election," he told me this week. "But it is a callous disregard for the small things. And when they are pointed out, for them to be like, 'Who cares? It's just a small thing. It didn't matter.' Well, you know what? This stuff matters to us, whether it's needless voter ID restrictions or handing out sandwiches. All these little election laws, they're there for a reason."

And, as is perhaps naturally when it comes to an Obama campaign veteran, Chaudhary sees in sandwich-gate a sign that the Romney campaign isn't all that it's cracked up to be. "We hear a lot about how this campaign is so amazingly professionally run," he said. "And they do [generally] do a good job. But, for instance, Governor Romney always seems to be confused at his press avails on whether he should be taking questions or not. I don't think it's his fault. It's actually his staff's fault. But it just sort of adds up to not caring about the way things work on the small level, on the local level, about how you're talking to people when you're talking to people."

"And when you're talking to them and violating the law," he said, "that's important."

But is the Obama campaign any different? Does not a free sandwich or two lurk in its closets? That campaign has an entirely different orientation, argued Chaudhary. "When you see things that are slightly controversial, like 'Dinner with Barack,' about whether or not that's a contest and whether or not that's okay with election law, you see that the campaign has been very responsive in making sure that it conforms with not only the letter of the law in all the different states but the spirit of the law as well. In some ways, that's been, I think, maybe a learning process for them as well. But it's one they embraced as a learning process rather than rejecting it as 'Who cares about this kind of thing?'"

As of yet, the answer seems to be 'not all that many people.' Posted on YouTube on Friday, just before Easter/Passover weekend, the sandwich video has attracted just over a hundred views.

But as atrocious as its production values are, Chaudhary's sandwich micro-film is a blending of past campaign video highlights. There was, of course, the 2006 "Macaca" affair, when then-Senator George Allen was caught on tape racially deriding a tracker from the James Webb campaign. In 2008, it was all about narrative, using video and other visuals to tell sweeping stories about the strengths and weakness of various candidates. Here, Chaudhary is using a small incident and making a goof of it to keep attention on a bigger point: that Romney is cutting corners when it comes to running his campaign.

It's not the first time that Chaudhary and company have gone the ridiculous route to make a real argument. During the Supreme Court's consideration of the health care law, Revolution created a micro-sift called SCOTUS Live! to protest the fact that the court refuses to allow cameras in. Revolution imagined just how the justices roll behind closed doors: Gathered in a hot tub. Playing beer pong. And, yes, eating a giant sandwich.

And as Chaudhary sees it, it's just fine if it takes absurdity to give voice to a serious point. "We tried to come up with a silly concept," he says, "that would make the silliness of the occasion. And it seemed like a motion picture with a talking sandwich was the best way to deliver that message."

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Nancy Scola is a writer based in New York. She has written for New York, Salon, and Seed, and is a frequent contributor to The American Prospect.

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