Going for broke
Al Gore is running out of money. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
Talking Politics by Seth Gitell
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.
The Gore campaign acknowledges that Gore has front-loaded his spending, but
they see it as an investment. By directing significant resources to the Iowa
caucus and the New Hampshire primary, he spent $14.5 million by September
30 ($11.5 million of this was subject to the federal limits). Given the
intensity of the campaign this November and the launch of television ads for
New Hampshire -- not to mention the relocation of his campaign headquarters to
Nashville -- observers estimate that Gore may have spent an additional
$5 million during the most recent quarter. We won't know for sure until
the year-end figures come out January 30. But it's likely that, by the
time of the New Hampshire primary, Gore will have spent around $20 million
-- half of what federal campaign limits permit him to spend.
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
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
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.
Despite all this, the Gore campaign seems remarkably unconcerned. "Al Gore is
going to have all the resources he needs for Iowa and New Hampshire, period,"
promises Christopher Lehane, a spokesperson for the Gore campaign. Lehane notes
that the campaign has another $9 million coming in federal matching funds
and adds that spending has slowed: "Salaries have been slashed. The cost of
events the campaign puts on has been sharply reduced."
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
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."
Another way for the Gore camp to get around its financial woes is to get help
from political entities that can do Gore's work for him. The Democratic
National Committee can't run ads for a particular candidate, but it can air
generic television advertising promoting the Democratic agenda. It can make the
case for why a Democratic presidency would be superior to a Republican one. It
can focus on issues, such as gun control and health care, on which Democrats
have a better reputation than Republicans do. Last month, Gore raised $400,000
in Boston for the DNC. It's money that may rescue him if he does reach his
spending limit by May, which would leave him defenseless against GOP attack
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
"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.
Seth Gitell can be reached at email@example.com.