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6 July 1999

Our current howler: Situational constructs

Synopsis: The Post and the Times changed some numbers around when Bush took the lead in fund-raising.

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

Al Gore’s Money Problem
Jill Abramson, The New York Times Magazine, 5/9/99

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

A Day of Disappointing Developments for Gore
Ceci Connolly, The Washington Post, 7/1/99

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

Flush Bush Undercuts Federal Funding of Campaigns
Phil Kuntz and Glenn R. Simpson, The Wall Street Journal, 7/1/99

Earlier this year, Al Gore led the hopefuls in White House fund-raising, and two major papers saw that fact as a warning about the veep's character. The Washington Post Magazine ran a cover story showing Gore in a green Superman suit with a dollar sign on his chest; it called him "The $55 Million Man" in bold letters right next to the picture. In an article filled with claims-never justified-that Gore was trying to "stretch" finance laws, Ceci Connolly repeatedly quoted Fred Wertheimer on the dangers of the Gore "machine." "Wertheimer fears that by setting its fund-raising target so high, the Gore campaign is asking for trouble," she wrote. What were the dangers of setting such goals? Connolly again quoted Wertheimer:

CONNOLLY (4/4): Wertheimer is concerned that the role of fund-raisers in bundling donations increases the potential for influence-peddling. "An individual can only give $1,000, but a fund-raiser can collect $100,000 or $1 million," he says. "That becomes their way of obtaining influence over presidential candidates." And as the clout of fund-raisers and collectors grows, he adds, "donors are interested in not only buying influence with the candidate but they're also interested in buying influence and building relationships with the fund-raisers."

Five weeks later, the New York Times Magazine published an article by Jill Abramson that was a virtual knock-off of Connolly's piece. Like Connolly, Abramson suggested, without giving examples, that Gore was finding ways "to skirt the rules;" she cited the $55 million figure, specifically saying Gore was trying to "raise" that amount. And of course, she called on Fred Wertheimer. "Political money is the wrong game to monopolize in the year 2000," he intoned, early on in her piece.

Well, now George Bush leads the money chase, having raised over $36 million in just two quarters, an achievement without precedent in American campaign history. But suddenly, in the writing of Connolly and Abramson, the ability to raise big wads of dough has taken on a whole different aspect. Even basic numbers used to frame events have changed in the two scribes' reporting. For example, here was Abramson last Saturday, explaining that Bush would "almost certainly" not accept matching funds:

ABRAMSON (7/2): If the Governor refuses matching funds he can spend whatever he likes in the early primary and caucus statesThe candidates who accept matching funds will have to cap their overall spending in the primaries at a figure somewhere near $33.5 million.

By now, a reader may be confused. If Bush has already raised $36 million; and if he is limited to spending $33 million with matching funds; then why would there be any doubt as to whether he would by-pass the funds? And more important: whatever became of that "$55 million" Ol' Debbil Gore had been raising last spring? If $33 million was the most he could spend, why was he trying to raise twice as much?

If you're confused on these points after reading the Times, don't expect any help from the Post. As is now SOP when Abramson writes something, Connolly wrote it one day before:

CONNOLLY (7/1 Post): Bush already has raised more money-an astonishing $36.2 million-than he is allowed to spend in the primaries if he plans to receive federal matching funds.

Phew! That Bush is really something! Dan Balz fleshed out Connolly's claim:

BALZ (7/1 Post): The Bush campaign's fund-raising pace makes it a virtual certainty that the GOP front-runner will decide to forgo federal matching funds in the primaries, his advisers said. Already, Bush has raised more than the estimated $33.5 million he could legally spend if he accepts matching funds, and his advisers said he has no intention of returning any money.

The papers agree on the basic facts, leaving us with our puzzles. If Bush has raised more than he could spend with matching funds, why is it not a total certainty that he will by-pass such funds? And what did happen to that $55 million Gore was planning to raise? Prepare, dear reader, to shake your head at CelebCorps' ability to muck up simple facts-and at the celebrity press corps' apparent willingness to spin even the most basic numbers.

First off, it is simply false to say, as both papers do, that candidates can spend only $33.5 million in the primaries. In April, Connolly explained, in great detail, that allowed spending would be $46.9 million. That would include $33.5 million "for polls and televisions commercials and marching bands and the like," she wrote-plus $6.7 million for fund-raising expenses, and $6.7 million for legal and accounting costs. This is why Bush officials have always said they would have to raise at least $50 million in order to forgo matching funds. The Post, of course, is well aware of that assessment, having reported it several times in recent months. But at any rate, it is false to say that hopefuls are limited to spending $33 million with matching funds, or that Bush has already raised more money than he could spend under terms of that system.

And what about the $55 million that Gore was supposed to be raising? That number was bogus too. To get her "$55 million man" figure, Connolly took the $46.9 million already described, and added on an $8 million "GELAC" fund-money that is used to pay any fines assessed at the end of the general election. But it gets better: when Abramson and Connolly said Gore was trying to "raise" $55 million, they not only added on the GELAC account; they ignored the fact that he would be given roughly $16 million in matching funds. Even adding in the GELAC fund, Gore would be trying to raise $39 million-the $55 million he could spend, minus the $16 million in matching funds. (If anyone wants to be precise, Gore is trying to raise roughly $31 million for the primaries.) And remember-it was the danger involved in raising money that was the focus of the original magazine pieces. Wertheimer discussed possible conflicts that arise from raising money, not from spending it.

So note the way the numbers have changed, depending on the situation. When Abramson wanted to stress the troubling amount Gore was raising, she threw in everything but the kitchen sink. She told readers he was trying to "raise" $55 million-a figure that was off by $16 million or $24 million, depending on whether you want to add in GELAC.

But now the scribes seem to want to tell readers how "astonishing" the Bush total is. Suddenly they use a different base number-$33.5 million, which they present as total primary spending. The number, as it turns out, is false-but it makes readers gasp at Bush's Big Haul. Readers are told Bush has already raised more than others could spend-another claim that is patently false.

Did the writers change their numbers to spin Bush up? We have no way of knowing. But Gore was never trying to raise $55 million; hopefuls are not limited to $33.5 million; and Bush has not yet exceeded the amount he could spend with matching funds. The numbers involved here are so unconfusing a school child could report them without any trouble (see below). We can't help wondering why the two papers can't get them straight-and why they seem to be giving their readers such a case of situational accounting. The $55 million was bogus (too high); the $33 million is bogus (too low). Both numbers seem to have been gimmicked up, to serve spin points derived from the moment.

But wait, dear reader-one final point! Whatever became of Fred Wertheimer? This spring, Connolly and Abramson were deeply concerned about the huge sums Debbil Gore was amassing. So they got some frightening quotes from Fred about the danger of such horrid sums.

Now, Bush has already raised a sum that surpasses the amount Gore hoped to raise-and not a peep from Deacon Fred in any of the two writers' articles. Maybe the scribes are too busy rearranging the facts to be able to put them in perspective.


Still points in a spinning universe: The basic facts aren't hard to state. Here are the basic unspun facts about the matching fund program (figures rounded):

Amount a candidate can spend pre-convention: $47 million total (clearly detailed by Connolly in April)

How that breaks down: $33 million on campaigning, $7 million on fund-raising expenses, $7 million on legal/accounting expenses

Amount a candidate can receive in matching funds: Around $16 million

Largest amount a candidate needs to raise if he gets full matching funds: Around $31 million

Where on earth-except in this press corps-can such simple numbers create so much confusion?

Simpson and Kuntz get it right: Somehow, Kuntz and Simpson managed to explain the facts in their Wall Street Journal article. Their numbers differ slightly from ours because FEC limits have not yet been finalized:

SIMPSON AND KUNTZ: Candidates who accept matching funds agree to limit their primary-campaign spending to $33.5 million, not counting fund-raising costs and certain other overhead expensesIn all, campaign-finance consultant Stan Huckaby estimates that candidates who accept matching funds will have to limit spending to about $45.7 million, which includes $12.2 million in exempted overhead costs. That puts Mr. Bush within easy striking distance of the overall limit, because he has raised an average of about $2 million a week in the past three months.

Wasn't that simple? The writers explain that Bush is close to the limit, and they accurately state what the limit is. The disadvantage? They don't get to give a little extra spin to Bush's amazing dollar total. The Post and the Times chose to spin basic facts, to make Bush's total seem more exciting. But it all evens out. Last spring, the two papers chose to spin basic facts to make Gore's dollar goal seem more troubling.

Visit our incomparable archives: The original articles by Connolly and Abramson were stunningly bad finance writing. They were so filled with innuendo as to be a disgrace-and they misstated simple, basic facts. Worst of all, the writers feigned horror at Gore's fund-raising goals-although it was clear Bush planned to raise much more money. For Connolly's article, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/20/99 through 4/23/99. For Abramson's strikingly similar piece, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 6/3/99.