Going For Broke
Al Gore is running out of money. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
By Seth Gitell
DECEMBER 20, 1999: There is one thing that everyone must understand about Al Gore's campaign for the presidency: Gore is running out of money. The likely Democratic nominee could well be broke by springtime -- while the likely GOP nominee, George W. Bush, is sitting on a $63 million war chest.
Gore's money problems have nothing to do with raising campaign funds. The vice-president can rake in the money as efficiently as any seasoned pol -- last week he raised $400,000 in a single night in Manhattan, and on December 15 he traveled to Tennessee for a fundraiser expected to raise $1 million. His partnership with Clinton allows Gore to tap into the most successful fundraising operation in modern political history.
The problem is that federal election laws limit Gore's spending in the primaries to $40 million. Unlike Bush, the vice-president accepts federal matching funds. That means he's allowed to spend just $33 million by the time of the Democratic National Convention on August 14, plus another $6 million to $7 million for fundraising activities (legal and accounting costs don't count toward the cap). By some estimates, Gore will hit that limit by May.
That will put him in a vulnerable position against Bush, who will be able to spend as much money as he wants attacking Gore. Gore will be powerless to answer until he gets his federal campaign money, totaling $68 million, after the convention. That's three months of unanswered attacks. If this sounds familiar, that's because it is. Clinton did the same thing to Bob Dole in 1996.
"The question is what on earth the Gore people were thinking when they spent all that money so early on," says a Democratic campaign-finance expert.
Ordinarily, the anointed successor to a popular president would not have found himself in this kind of crunch. Any reasonable plan would have had Gore spending money at the beginning of the campaign to get his organization in place and then coasting toward the nomination after New Hampshire. (That was Gore's money-is-no-object thinking when he paid Naomi Wolf $15,000 per month as a consultant.) But that isn't what happened. Former senator Bill Bradley is giving Gore a far tougher fight than almost anybody expected a year ago -- a recent Boston Globe/WBZ poll had Gore and Bradley even in New Hampshire, while other polls, such as the WNDS-TV/Franklin Pierce College poll, show Bradley up by eight points. As a result, Gore is spending far more money to fend off Bradley than originally planned.
Even if Gore wins the New Hampshire primary on February 1, he's going to have to spend heavily to prepare for Super Tuesday on March 7. On that date, Gore and Bradley will go head to head in 19 states, including delegate-rich New York, Massachusetts, and California. A poll by UMass Boston's McCormack Institute shows Bradley leading Gore 43 to 35 in Massachusetts, but lagging in California. He will have to spend heavily on television ads to pump up his campaign in these expensive markets.
Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh says Gore's campaign made a miscalculation that will be tough to do anything about in the heat of the primary battle. "When you're out there campaigning and raising money, you can't really fix problems," says Marsh. "They just all assumed everyone knew Al Gore and everyone wanted him to be the nominee."
All of which makes the Bradley people very happy. "There was no expectation in the Gore campaign that Bradley would be there after Iowa and New Hampshire," says Michael Goldman, a Democratic political consultant working for Bradley in Massachusetts.
James Shannon, a co-chair of Bradley's Massachusetts campaign, notes that Bradley, unlike Gore, has been frugal. "They don't call him Dollar Bill for nothing," Shannon says. "We have done this whole Massachusetts campaign on a volunteer basis." Federal Election Commission records show that as of September 30, Bradley had spent just $7.8 million toward the fundraising cap -- roughly $4 million less than Gore by the same date.
"Gore's now going to have to look at what happens in New Hampshire and make some decisions of where he's going to play," Shannon says. Bradley partisans believe they will do well in March, and they're hopeful that their candidate's parsimonious ways will keep them in play against Gore until the August convention.
Although the primary voting results are expected to be close, Gore, given his lead in superdelegates, is ultimately expected to win the nomination. (Superdelegates are the elected Democratic officials who are free to vote for any candidate when they attend the convention -- unlike ordinary delegates, who must support the winner of their state's primary.) But he will have expended tremendous financial resources doing so. "The Gore campaign will no doubt reach the limit in any protracted campaign against Bradley," says Cleta Mitchell, a conservative campaign-finance lawyer based in Washington, DC.
Besides which, the Gore people already have a strategy to offset some of their financial woes. When the campaign funds get tight enough, Gore will be shifted back into his official role as vice-president. In November, the Washington Post reported that Gore had met with cabinet officials about scheduling spring events that he can attend without having to use campaign money. In theory, a Gore ally such as Andrew Cuomo, secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development, can schedule events for Gore wherever federal housing money is used. And the Gore campaign is reportedly considering using HUD grants in just this fashion.
For this to be successful, though, Gore will have to overcome the wishes of government bureaucrats who don't always want to see certain programs highlighted -- such as housing subsidies for the elderly, which HUD tried to slash. And there are other potential pitfalls, as Gore's September visit to Boston made clear. When the vice-president came to announce $5 million in federal funds for local fishermen, it seemed like a good way for him to get a free, positive media hit -- in New Hampshire's shadow. But things went awry. Senator John Kerry, who was largely responsible for the fishermen's financial relief, was reportedly peeved at Gore for taking credit. Although Kerry, who has since endorsed Gore, didn't comment publicly on the issue, advocates for local fishermen were angered by Gore's spotlight-hogging move.
Gore is apparently forging ahead with the free-publicity strategy anyway, to judge from his attendance at last Thursday's memorial service for the six fallen firefighters in Worcester. There is no question that the tragedy merited the attendance of President Clinton, whose manner in such lugubrious settings is nothing less than superb. But generally, either the vice-president or the president attends funerals -- not both. Clinton, for example, attended the funerals of King Hussein and Yitzhak Rabin, and Gore addressed a memorial service following the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado (though both, it should be noted, attended a service near Washington for victims of the African embassy bombings). Gore "was traveling in his capacity as vice-president" when he went to Worcester, says his spokesman, Chris Lehane. But it probably didn't hurt that the funeral took place so close to New Hampshire.
The Republican National Committee is already attacking Gore's "official" trips. "The government isn't there to pick up the tab for a vice-president who is having trouble in his political campaign," snapped RNC chairman James Nicholson in a recently released statement.
"Al Gore is still the vice-president of the United States, and it should come as no surprise that he will continue to fulfill his duties as vice-president," says Christopher Lehane, responding to the criticism. The irony, however, is that Gore's official trips could be politically fatal -- not because there's anything inappropriate about them, but simply because they play to his political weakness. It is now recognized that Gore didn't start repairing the damage done by Bradley until the vice-president stepped out from Clinton's shadow and began aggressively campaigning in New Hampshire. Says Mary Anne Marsh of the official trips: "I think that will kill him. It puts him back in Washington. It makes him Vice President Gore again -- exactly the environment that had been very unsuccessful for him."
Steve Grossman, former chairman of the DNC, says these ads will be a crucial way to parry Bush-campaign attacks this summer. "The most important element in the strategy to blunt those attacks is for the Democratic National Committee and other Democratic committees to be very certain that they've budgeted resources to make sure the American people understand this is a watershed election," Grossman says. "We cannot go dark during a period where our nominee may be out of money."
The Gore campaign may be looking to other sources of help as well -- and this could help explain a number of recent actions by the Clinton-Gore administration. For example, the vice-president's situation might be the real reason Clinton praised the WTO protesters in Seattle and why, many believe, the president actually wanted the WTO meeting to fail. One of Gore's key constituencies is labor: like the DNC, the AFL-CIO can provide crucial help during the summer after Gore has locked up the nomination.
The financial predicament also helps explain the tack Gore's campaign manager, Donna Brazile, has taken in recent months. In November, Brazile went out of her way to signal to certain key groups that Gore was on their side. "The four pillars of the Democratic Party are African-Americans, labor, women, and what I call our 'ethnic minorities,' " Brazile said. At the time, her comments were interpreted as signaling a new PC direction for the campaign -- but now we know better. As a pragmatic political activist who's intimately familiar with Gore's finances, Brazile knows that an energized grassroots community and labor-financed television ads may be the only weapons he has this summer against Bush's sure-to-be-ubiquitous campaign ads.
Democratic strategist Marsh sees a danger here. "Gore has to be mindful to run a general-election strategy that appeals to small-business owners, working men and women, working families, and suburban voters, who make up the majority of the electorate," she says. "You have to hold on to those people until November."
"What Donna [Brazile] is referring to is the importance of getting out the vote from core constituencies of the Democratic Party. That provides a good road map for success," counters Christopher Lehane. Besides, he says, "Ultimately ideas will trump cash. In virtually every election cycle, Republicans outspend Democrats. We will focus on the issues that matter to the American people -- guns, economy, health care." Well, ideas may have trumped cash during the Crusades, but not in political campaigns. Why did Bill Clinton spend so much time and energy on raising money?
On the plus side for Gore, Bush could be forced to start dipping into his own funds earlier than expected. The better John McCain does, the more money Bush will be forced to spend to defeat him, and Democrats know it. In recent weeks, as McCain came under fire for his temper, Democratic stalwarts like Senator Robert Torricelli got on the airwaves to defend him.
Another possible bright spot is that while Gore has been sharpening his skills in battle with Bradley, Bush is still pretty much a novice when it comes to campaign skills. But Bush's people figure that they're protecting their candidate so they can soften Gore up by election time.
It all points to one conclusion: if the example of Bob Dole is any precedent, Gore could be in some serious trouble. It is the summer of 2000 that will determine whether his campaign will live or die.
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