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 Gores Money Problem
Jill Abramson, The New York Times Magazine, 5/9/99
Bushs 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
Bushs 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
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
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
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.