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20 April 1999

Our current howler (part I): Less is more

Synopsis: Ceci Connolly described a candidate’s “relentless hunt for cash.” It was the candidate who is raising less money!

The Gore Machine
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post Magazine, 4/4/99

Bush’s Dash for Cash
Susan B. Glasser, The Washington Post, 4/7/99

Most observers agree: early fund-raising will play a key role in the 2000 presidential primaries. And, with the first reporting period recently concluded, the major papers have been taking a look at what they often call the “dash for cash.”

We’re happy to report that no one has alleged any wrong-doing, to date, by any candidate. The big surprise? Some folks have even donated to big-bucks Steve Forbes! Forbes has received $18,000 in donations, according to recent records.

Here at THE HOWLER, our financial analysts have scrutinized a pair of Washington Post profiles. And, although it’s clear that no one has done anything wrong, our analysis has turned up some clear-cut differences between the campaigns of front-runners Al Gore and George Bush.

According to Ceci Connolly’s Post Magazine cover story (4/4), the Gore campaign hopes to spend $47 million during the upcoming primaries. This would include up to $16 million in federal matching funds--meaning the campaign itself would have to raise $31 million from individual contributors. (For detailed breakdown, see postscript.)

By contrast, the Bush campaign is seriously considering opting out of the federal matching fund system (as is completely legal and appropriate). Susan Glasser reported an interview with Donald Evans, Bush’s campaign finance chairman:

GLASSER: Evans last week discussed in detail the reason for the early-starting fund-raising: the campaign’s effort to bank enough to opt out of the presidential public funding system...“If you go nonmatching, you’re assuming you can raise at least $50 million,” Evans said. “That’s a huge jump over what anyone has done before.”

Evans explained a principal reason for the campaign’s possible strategy--the desire to match the campaign spending of the aforementioned, and self-financed, Forbes.

As is understandable in this environment, the Bush campaign is asking fund-raisers to commit to larger goals than is Gore. According to Connolly, Gore fund-raisers will be asked to raise $50,000 apiece (in separate $1000 donations). Bush’s “Pioneers,” reports Glasser, aim to raise $100,000 each (in the same legally-required $1000 increments).

We can’t stress enough that no one has alleged that either campaign has done anything wrong. And it is perfectly understandable that Bush would step outside the matching funds system to compete with Forbes. But at any rate, the Gore campaign may end up raising as little as $31 million from contributors for the primaries, with “solicitors” raising $50,000 each. The Bush campaign hopes to seek $50 million (or more), with Pioneers taking in $100,000.

Given those numbers, we were a little surprised to see Gore singled out for special treatment, in a story by Connolly which spoke, on the cover, about “Al Gore’s relentless hunt for campaign dollars.” Gore appeared on the cover in a Superman suit, with a big dollar sign where Supe’s “S” would be. The red-and-blue suit, of course, was now green--and we don’t think that it stood for the environment.

Indeed, with Gore raising substantially less primary money from contributors than Bush, the portrait was quite striking. The lengthy article is called “The Gore Machine,” and sub-heads boast that Gore has “the best staff for campaign cash.” Large cartoon visuals show Gore in various poses reflecting his involvement with money. A page-and-a-half visual at the start of the article shows Gore holding up a large bag of cash. On the next page, Gore is shown dressed as a Boy Scout--saluting a $500 bill. A third cartoon shows campaign contributors being ground into a machine shaped like Gore’s head--with $100 bills coming out Gore’s left ear. The message would have been hard to miss.

Somewhat puzzling treatment, one might think, for a candidate planning to raise so much less than another. There are a few disclaimers along the way. Early on, for example, Connolly says this:

CONNOLLY: [W]hile the vice president’s game plan this year is virtually the same as Lamar Alexander’s or Elizabeth Dole’s or George W. Bush’s, his fund-raising machine is bigger, tougher, faster.

But it’s hard to know how to reconcile that with the fund-raising goals we have stated. When Gore is raising $31 million to Bush’s $50 million, how is the Gore “machine” “bigger?” Indeed, Connolly acknowledges the Bush camp’s plan later on in her article:

CONNOLLY: In recent campaigns, wealthy contestants like Ross Perot and Steve Forbes have tossed out the rule book and the matching funds that come with it and spent their own millions with no restrictions. And this year, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, fearing Forbes will again use his wealth to carpet-bomb fellow Republicans, is considering forgoing matching funds in order to bust the spending limits in the early primaries.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with that possible plan by Bush, and Forbes’ resources make the plan understandable. But the puzzle remains. With Gore’s goals and numbers so much lower than Bush’s, how is it that Gore is on the magazine’s cover with a large dollar sign on his chest? How is it that Gore’s “hunt for dollars” is “relentless” when an opponent is raising so much more?

The answer, of course, is very simple: Gore has had questions raised in the past two years about fund-raising in the 1996 campaign. And once this press corps gets a story they like, they simply never stop telling it. Connolly revisits the matters from the 1996 campaign--the disputed phone calls, and the event at the Hsi Lai Temple. We’ll briefly discuss Connolly’s accounts of same in a dispatch at the end of the week.

But it does remain puzzling to see a candidate singled out for so special a portrait--presented as someone whose hunt for cash is “relentless,” when an opponent is raising much more. Indeed, Connolly misses few opportunities to spin Gore’s involvement with the dash for cash, although other hopefuls are of course engaged in the very same processes she describes. And Connolly repeatedly says Gore is “stretching the rules”--though her lengthy story gives no examples. We’ll suggest Thursday that, as she “stoops for a scoop,” Connolly’s stretching the language.

Tomorrow: Connolly is amazed by Gore’s fund-raising skills. Why, he even says “thank you” to contributors!

The numbers: According to Connolly, FEC guidelines will permit the following primary spending from candidates who receive matching funds: $33.5 million for basic spending; $6.7 million for fund-raising expenses; another $6.7 million for legal and accounting expenses. That adds up to $46.9 million in primary spending for candidates who receive matching funds.

But of course, campaigns receiving matching funds don’t have to raise that much money from contributors. Gore “would like to collect up to $16 million in matching funds next year,” according to Connolly. The rules on matching funds are somewhat arcane. But if Gore receives the full $16 million, he would only need to raise $31 million from individual contributors. Governor Bush, as Glasser points out, may try to raise $50 million--or more.

Connolly lists one other sum that Gore will raise--$8 million for the GELAC fund, used principally for fines and penalties if any are assessed. This money can’t be spent until the general election, though it can be raised now. Presumably, Bush will also raise a GELAC fund, in addition to the $50 million for primary spending.