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16 July 1999

Our current howler (part I): With everything on it

Synopsis: Connolly and Glasser continue along with gruesome campaign finance spinning.

Bush’s Big Bankroll and What It Means
Jill Abramson, The New York Times, 7/2/99

Bush’s Fund-Raising Opens Huge Disparity
Dan Balz, The Washington Post, 7/1/99

Bradley’s Campaign Bankroll Nearly Equals Gore’s
Ceci Connolly and Susan B. Glasser, The Washington Post, 7/16/99

Bush Forgoes Federal Funds And Has No Spending Limit
Don Van Natta Jr., The New York Times, 7/16/99

If you're running for president, how much can you spend? There's no way to find out from this press corps! Today, the papers report on recent filings about the hopefuls' fund-raising totals. And basic numbers about allowed spending have changed around again.

Just two weeks ago, the New York Times said this:

ABRAMSON: If [Bush] refuses matching funds he can spend whatever he likes in the early primary and caucus states...The candidates who accept matching funds will have to cap their overall spending in the primaries at a figure somewhere near $33.5 million.

The Post agreed with that view:

BALZ: Already, Bush has raised more than the estimated $33.5 million he could legally spend if he accepts matching funds.

You'll recall what we said at the time (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/6/99). When the papers were pegging Gore as the Big Money Guy, they had said he was trying to raise $55 million. And we noted that the $33 million the papers were suddenly touting didn't include the legal, accounting and fund-raising expenses that were part of what hopefuls can spend. It looked to us like the papers were trying to hype the amount that Bush had raised--using a construct that let them say he had already raised more than other hopefuls would be permitted.

Today, the papers report on money again, and the numbers are suddenly different:

CONNOLLY AND GLASSER: Under the post-Watergate system, [Bush's] rivals will each have to adhere to an overall spending limit of about $40 exchange for the matching funds.

No word of where they got the new number, but the Times was using it too:

VAN NATTA: Mr. Bush...will not be restricted by a spending limit of nearly $40 million that applies to candidates who accept matching funds in the primaries.

A simple call to the FEC told us that nothing has changed in the past two weeks--except the construct the papers are using. Yep. Whoever said "facts are stubborn things" just hasn't been reading this press corps.

And this isn't the only hard-to-parse number found in this morning's reporting. Tell us this: How much has the Gore campaign raised? Today's New York Times says $19.5 million; USA Today and the Washington Times say $17.5 million. The Washington Post says $17.5 million, but then this tiny footnote appears in a table:

THE WASHINGTON POST (7/16): **Does not include $1.9 million raised for general election legal expenses.

So for what it's worth, Gore has brought in $19.5 million, with $2 million set aside for that GELAC fund that led to mischief in earlier reporting.

Indeed, we can only marvel at the various ways the Post can spin down Gore's fund-raising. Take a minute to ponder this passage:

CONNOLLY AND GLASSER: On the Democratic side, the Gore team once believed money would be one of the vice president's greatest assets. At the start of the year, there was heady talk of bankrolling $55 million by early 2000. But Gore has had trouble building a cohesive, affordable campaign team and [Bill] Bradley has turned out to be a formidable fund-raiser in his own right.

There's that "$55 million" figure again, always useful for setting up spin. The writers imply that Gore won't reach this goal, set in headier times. In fact, though it makes for excellent negative spin, there is no reason to think that assessment is true. If one understands how this figure breaks down, Gore seems pretty much right on target.

Of the $55 million the Post hung on Gore's chest in its gruesome April 4 magazine piece (see links below), $16 million would come from matching funds; Gore sought to raise only $39 million. And, as we see from today's Post: when the tiny footnotes are added in, Gore has already raised half that amount. Bush is raising unprecedented sums, dwarfing what anyone else has brought in. But Gore's fund-raising is proceeding along at what would otherwise be a record-setting pace. It's a fact the Post would almost surely be telling you, with gloomy warnings from Fred Wertheimer, if it couldn't give you this other silly spin.

The Post's ability to spin the digits shows up in one other area. At one point, Connolly and Glasser simply gape at how frugal the Bush team has been:

CONNOLLY AND GLASSER: New campaign finance reports...revealed yesterday that Gore has spent far more than either Bradley or Bush, waging a consultant-heavy campaign that spent heavily to raise the money it took in. Although Gore has raised $17.5 million--about $1 million less than his campaign estimated two weeks ago--he had just $9.3 million left, more than $2 million ahead of Bradley.

The scribes go on to ooh and aah over Bush's savvy use of cold hot dogs:

CONNOLLY AND GLASSER: Bush raised a total of $37 million--more than any presidential candidate ever--but spent only $7.2 million on his frugal, hot-dogs-for-dinner operation.

They seem to relish the point. But has Gore spent "far more than Bush?" We sent the figures to our Arithmetic Wing, where our experts--fourth-graders--did some ciphering. They tell us that Gore has spent $8.2 million, compared to Bush's $7.2. That probably didn't make for a good enough spin, so the scribblers never stated how much Gore had spent. Instead, they penned a pointless paragraph about percentages spent by the hopefuls:

CONOLLY AND GLASSER: Overall, Bush has spent only 19 percent of what he's raised, compared with 37 percent for Bradley and 46 percent for Gore.

But these figures don't necessarily measure frugality; they also measure percentage of people called saying "yes." A fund-raising campaign that is doing well will always have a lower overhead by percentage. And the saddest fact in the Post's latest gong show: to get the Gore figure up to 46%, the writers simply ignored the $2 million raised for the GELAC fund. Gore's $8.2 million spent is forty-two percent of the total he has actually raised. There really seems to be no end to the ways these two will spin up their stories.

Today's article continues the Post's gruesome coverage of this year's presidential fund-raising. This article is simply drenched in spin; it should be an embarrassment for the Post. Can we tell you what the Post would do, if it simply wanted to inform its readers? It would just print tables in place of stories, showing how much has been spent and raised. Post readers would be able to go through the data, and see the basic facts for themselves. But Connolly and Glasser have made it clear they aren't willing or able to write a straight story. Today's display is another fine mess--another tribute to spin over substance.


Go figure: We don't know where the Post and Times got the new figure for permitted spending. The FEC tells us today the approximate spending figures have not changed; a hopeful will be able to spend $33.5 million for campaigning, $6.7 million for legal/accounting, and $6.7 million for fund-raising. Two weeks ago, that added up to "$33.5 million." Today, it's "about/almost $40 million." No explanations offered. Go figure.

Visit our incomparable archives: Boy, are we sick of looking up these dates! Anyway, for past work in this area, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/6/99, with links to previous reporting.