Fund-Raising Talent a Key to Success : Campaign Retrospective: Finances Aided Dukakis
“Don’t pay any attention to the polls,” Michael S. Dukakis cautioned his supporters here as he sought to ensure their votes in last week’s Pennsylvania primary. Back in 1978, he recalled, polls in Massachusetts had shown him 50 points ahead in his campaign to win renomination as governor, but he nevertheless went down to a humiliating defeat.
“There are very few politicians in America who have the skill and ability to do that,” Dukakis said with heavy irony. “But I was one of them.”
These days, Michael Stanley Dukakis, who ultimately won Pennsylvania by a healthy margin over his sole remaining opponent, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, can afford to mock his own political prowess.
The cloud of uncertainty that has long hung over the competition for the Democratic presidential nomination seems finally to have lifted, unveiling Dukakis as the all-but-certain nominee. Moreover, a retrospective examination by The Times of this turbulent contest makes clear that despite his modest remarks about his “skill and ability,” Dukakis had at least one political talent much envied by his rivals--raising money.
Many factors, some beyond his control, contributed to Dukakis’ success. But interviews by Times reporters with Dukakis advisers and with strategists for rival candidates suggest that Dukakis’ ability to raise funds was probably the most important of all.
The huge financial advantage Dukakis has enjoyed throughout the contest made it possible for him to succeed by conducting a campaign that reflected his own cautious and disciplined nature and style. As unremarkable as they might seem, the qualities of self-control and moderation that are Dukakis’ stock in trade have had strong appeal to Democrats in this campaign as the party seeks to recover from four landslide losses in the last five presidential elections.
“For years we have been wandering in the presidential wilderness,” said Democratic National Committee member Mark Siegel, a veteran of every presidential campaign since 1976. “At this point everyone wants to win, and it’s very difficult for anyone to find Dukakis unacceptable.”
Dukakis’ political wealth took on extra importance when the campaign turned into a battle among contenders who, like the Massachusetts governor, were little known, and it gave Dukakis’ candidacy an immediate and enduring credibility. It also afforded his advisers the luxury of not having to make most of the difficult choices between investing funds in one state or another that ultimately turned into fatal mistakes for his rivals.
Dukakis’ strategists made errors of their own, losing contests in two major states--Illinois and Michigan--through miscalculations. But, said William Carrick, campaign manager for Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, whose candidacy went downhill after capturing the initial delegate contest in Iowa: “Whatever mistakes the Dukakis campaign made, they had the funds to recover from.”
“This campaign never had to throw in the kitchen sink on a given Tuesday,” said Dukakis’ communications director, Leslie Dach. “And there was no one Tuesday that determined our future.”
As a candidate, Dukakis has been distinguished more for the tactical blunders he did not make than for the innovative proposals he offered. In the long, pitfall-strewn trail to the nomination, he was adroit at maneuvering out of harm’s way, often by shifting his positions, or at least his emphasis, to match the political environment.
For example, in the South, where he was under attack from Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr. for being weak on defense, he addressed a rally standing before a giant U.S. flag and later declared: “I don’t yield in toughness to Al Gore in any way, shape or manner.”
Campaigning in Illinois, Dukakis suddenly picked up Gephardt’s anti-corporate, populist theme, lashing out at “greenmail,” golden parachutes, corporate mergers and “monopoly games” on Wall Street.
Later, in Michigan, Dukakis, who earlier had challenged Gephardt on the need for major changes in trade laws, announced his support for the Gephardt-like trade amendment sponsored by Michigan Sen. Donald W. Riegle Jr. And in New York, he suddenly embraced an anti-drug theme that Jackson long had championed.
Luck Plays Role
Luck also made a major contribution to Dukakis’ candidacy. Earliest and probably most important of the various turns of fate that shaped the 1988 Democratic campaign was the forced exit from the race of Gary Hart in the spring of 1987, just a few weeks after Dukakis announced his own candidacy.
Though Hart re-entered the campaign late in the year, his candidacy never recovered from the allegations of womanizing. And thus Dukakis was spared from having to deal with the candidate who, until his ignominy, had been the recognized front-runner.
When it came to raising money--"the mother’s milk of politics,” in Jesse Unruh’s memorable phrase--Dukakis left nothing to chance. Soon after his reelection to a third term as Massachusetts governor in November, 1986, Dukakis met in the kitchen of his Victorian duplex in Brookline, just outside Boston, with fund-raiser Robert Farmer to discuss the prospects for a presidential run.
“Will the money be there to make me a credible candidate?” Dukakis asked. Farmer, who had been treasurer for Ohio Sen. John Glenn’s 1984 presidential campaign had, as he told Dukakis, “never raised money for someone who was at 1% in the polls,” which was then Dukakis’ level.
He gave the governor a conservative estimate of what he hoped to reach by the time of the Iowa caucuses in February, 1988.
As it turned out, the campaign more than doubled Farmer’s initial estimate and the money continued to pour in. The flow was aided and abetted by Dukakis’ status as three-term governor of a prosperous state, by the fervor for his candidacy among Greek-Americans and by the far-reaching network of medium-range--$10,000 to $15,000--fund-raisers Farmer recruited.
By March 31, as the campaign neared what turned out to be its critical tests in the Wisconsin and New York primaries, Farmer had raised $14.6 million for Dukakis, more than twice as much as his nearest rivals, Gephardt and Gore. And by convention time in July, he will have raised and spent roughly $27 million, including federal matching funds, more money than any other Democratic candidate since the campaign reform laws went into effect in 1976.
Early in his campaign, when fund-raising was the top priority for Dukakis, one aide jokingly called him “the vampire candidate--by day he works at the Statehouse, then at night, he swoops down on some unsuspecting city and sucks up their money.”
But while big money and good fortune helped to create the conditions for Dukakis’ string of victories through the past 12 weeks, it remained for the candidate to take advantage of these conditions.
Defeat Made Impact
Many who know him now, and knew him in 1978, believe his ability to accomplish this can be traced in good measure back to the seasoning influence of the 1978 defeat he mentioned in addressing his supporters here in Philadelphia. By their testimony, that defeat 10 years ago was as defining and formative an experience as a man then 44 years old could have, teaching him to restrain his own inclinations and weigh them against the interests of others.
“It’s good for a guy in his position to get beaten once or twice in his life,” said a longtime confidant who prefers not to be named. “He learned how important it was to listen to people and to seek different points of view.”
And in 1988, after seven years of President Reagan’s detached stewardship, and with the memory of the botched management that led to the Iran-Contra scandal still fresh in the public’s mind, many believe the sense of solidity and steadiness conveyed by Dukakis is potent political medicine.
“This year, competence is charisma,” said Charles E. Baker III, who ran Dukakis’ New Hampshire campaign and now is national field director.
And hand in hand with the stress on skillful managing has been an emphasis on caution, which many critics thought excessive--also drummed into his consciousness, as Dukakis himself acknowledges, by his 1978 defeat.
Thus, during the campaign here in Pennsylvania, Dukakis rejected Jesse Jackson’s challenge to back his domestic policy objectives with specific budget commitments. Recalling that in running for his first term as governor, he had promised not to raise taxes and then felt obliged to renege on that pledge once he gained office, Dukakis said: “I had to eat an awful lot of crow. And I’m never going to make that mistake again.”
Against a stronger field of opponents, better financed and better known, Dukakis might have had trouble making headway with his close-to-the-vest approach. But not only was Hart eliminated by the error of his own ways, so also was Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., whose gifts as an orator and fund-raising ability were thought by some to make him a significant contender for the nomination.
Although Biden’s withdrawal last September, caused in part by a disclosure that he had plagiarized a portion of a speech, reduced the field, it created a potentially disastrous problem for Dukakis when it was found out that the videotaped evidence of the plagiarism had been turned over to a reporter by Dukakis campaign manager John Sasso.
Dukakis fired Sasso, whom some described as his alter ego, and then submitted himself to a penitent campaign swing through Iowa, dutifully answering every question reporters and Biden’s angry supporters raised about the episode.
Although Dukakis’ actions permitted his campaign to survive in the long term in the contest for delegates in the Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses, it cost him ground in the short run. But this was a setback he could afford because of his well-stocked treasury and because of the boost he expected to get in New Hampshire, the state next door to his own and the site of the first primary on Feb. 16.
For others though, Iowa was of prime importance. As it turned out, though Dukakis finished third in Iowa, his candidacy once again benefited from circumstances beyond his control--this time the endorsement by the influential Des Moines Register of Illinois Sen. Paul Simon.
The three candidates with the biggest stakes in Iowa were Gephardt, Simon and former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt. All needed a strong showing there to build momentum to carry them forward to the next big test in New Hampshire and to raise the funds to compete with Dukakis.
Iowa mattered most of all to Gephardt, who had campaigned there for nearly two years even before launching his candidacy in January, 1987. When his campaign in that state slumped in the polls after a strong early start, Gephardt closed down his operations in the Southern states, where he had hoped to rout Dukakis on Super Tuesday, and concentrated nearly all his resources and staff on Iowa.
Gephardt Moves Ahead
Spurred by a brilliantly conceived television campaign depicting Capitol Hill insider Gephardt as a populist outsider and threatening retaliation against unfair trade practices by South Korea--"How many Americans are going to pay $48,000 for one of their Hyundais?” one commercial asked rhetorically--Gephardt moved ahead of Dukakis and Simon into first place in Iowa polls by late January.
Simon had been the hot candidate in the fall, helped by a public mood that hungered for a candidate who could be trusted and appeared to be wholesome and genuine--an image Simon sought to match, with some success at first.
But he ran into trouble in a nationally televised debate in December when he could not rebut charges that the figures for his budget-deficit plan did not add up.
Meanwhile, like Gephardt, Babbitt was also making a late drive in Iowa, largely by presenting himself as the only candidate with the courage to deal honestly with the budget deficit. But his campaign was desperately short of money, and Babbitt’s managers realized he could not long survive without at least a third-place finish in Iowa.
Mindful of the potential impact of the impending endorsement by the Register, Babbitt’s aides set money aside to trumpet the paper’s backing if it came their way.
But instead, eight days before the caucuses, the Register endorsed Simon, likening him to Abraham Lincoln, and it was Simon’s campaign that took out commercials to spread the news. Babbitt’s hopes were crushed--he finished fifth, ahead only of Hart and Gore--while the impetus from the endorsement helped carry Simon into second place, ahead of Dukakis and just behind Gephardt.
Without the Register endorsement, Simon would have probably finished no better than third in Iowa and would not have been a serious factor in New Hampshire. This would have allowed Gephardt, who because of his strong populist message and his appeal to centrist voters was regarded by many as Dukakis’ strongest potential adversary, to challenge Dukakis directly in New Hampshire.
Instead, what happened in New Hampshire was that Simon, who with his second-place finish in Iowa could not be ignored, launched a negative media campaign against Gephardt, accusing him of adopting positions as a candidate contrary to his votes in Congress.
Gephardt and his campaign manager, Carrick, were watching the evening news in a Howard Johnson’s motel room in Portsmouth, N.H., when they saw Simon’s first negative commercial and immediately realized the damage that would be done to their campaign.
Gephardt was “just simmering,” said Carrick, who “wondered whether we would be able to get out of New Hampshire alive.”
Simon Hurts Gephardt
As it turned out, Gephardt finished second behind Dukakis in New Hampshire, good enough to allow him to go on to defeat Dukakis in South Dakota a week later. Meanwhile, Simon, though he barely limped out of New Hampshire, had hurt Gephardt with his attacks, impairing the Missouri congressman’s credibility and his ability to raise funds for the big Super Tuesday showdown on March 8.
As that mega-event approached with 20 delegate contests, 14 of them in Southern and Border states, Gore and Jackson stopped waiting in the wings and moved to center stage. Each had potent assets but also serious flaws.
The only white Southerner in the race, Gore had put aside several million dollars to use on March 8. But he had no consistent message and no real strategy, except to concentrate his resources in the South.
“If I had to do it over again, I would have started a year earlier than I did,” Gore said later, contending that an earlier beginning would have allowed him to recruit more staff and do more planning.
Jackson, by contrast, had a strong message, which with its attack on “economic violence” appealed not only to blacks but also to white liberals, and he had a solid base of black supporters everywhere around the country.
His problem was that, however appealing his message, there remained opposition to his candidacy--based on racial polarization, his lack of experience and his ultraliberal ideas--that he could not overcome.
At any rate, Dukakis held all the high cards on Super Tuesday. He had used his money to build strong organizations in the South’s two largest states, Florida and Texas. “He organized those two states as tightly as if was running for governor,” said Gephardt aide Carrick.
And in the days before the March 8 vote, Dukakis was able to back up that investment in organization with an estimated $2.5 million in television ads, which allowed him to cover not only Florida and Texas but also Maryland, with enough left over to run negative ads against Gephardt in Arkansas, Louisiana and Alabama.
Gephardt’s campaign, with only about half of Dukakis’ media budget, spread the money thinly over seven states, a course that critics later said was counterproductive. But Carrick, convinced that Gephardt and Gore could not both survive for long after Super Tuesday, felt his candidate had to win more states than Gore.
Gore’s strategist were just as determined to outdo Gephardt. They succeeded in part because they had about three times as much money as Gephardt, according to Carrick, and because they used some of it to run commercials attacking Gephardt.
When the last votes were counted on Super Tuesday, Gephardt carried only his home state and was in actuality finished, though he kept his candidacy alive for three more weeks. Dukakis, meanwhile, won in Texas, Florida and six other states.
In effect, though few realized it at the time, the contest was over. While Dukakis’ two remaining viable opponents, Gore and Jackson, each did well on Super Tuesday--Gore won seven states, Jackson five--neither had the potential to overcome Dukakis’ lead in delegates and his burgeoning advantage in money.
On the night of March 8, Gore’s aides and supporters celebrated his winning seven states. Finally, one who was there recalled: “Some of us began to realize there was no plan for what to do next.”
From then on until he dropped out of the race last month, Gore went from Illinois to Connecticut to Wisconsin to New York, spending his money and only once getting more than 15% of the vote.
“A lot of people didn’t want to waste their vote on somebody they didn’t think could win,” Gore said later.
Jackson Wins Caucuses
Many people thought Jackson could not win either, but he showed more imagination, aroused more enthusiasm and got more votes than Gore did. Still, after Super Tuesday, Jackson never won another primary--though he did win a number of caucuses from South Carolina to Alaska. And his victory in the Michigan caucus rocked the Democratic Party.
But there was a threshold of the white vote beyond which Jackson could not reach. He came closest to breaking through in Wisconsin, but on Election Day he still drew slightly less than 25% of the white vote. It was a high point for the campaign, but not nearly enough for victory.
Jackson’s campaign manager, Gerald F. Austin, in effect wrote the epitaph for the Jackson campaign when he told a reporter on primary day in Wisconsin that white voters “honestly like Jackson and are listening to what he has to say, but they won’t vote for him. And they won’t vote for him because his win in Michigan said he actually could be the nominee.”
Nothing has happened since to Jackson, in New York or Pennsylvania, to alter that judgment.
Meanwhile, while attention in the closing weeks of the campaign focuses on what Dukakis might do for Jackson, a look back at the critical Wisconsin primary suggests that Jackson has already done something for Dukakis.
There, the threat of a possible Jackson victory forced Dukakis to be more forthcoming about his candidacy than in the past. “He said ‘I’m running for President because . . .’ ” said Paul Brountas, Dukakis’ campaign chairman and close friend. “That was very important. It was the message we should have had in Michigan.”
And most people feel that it is a message the presumptive Democratic standard-bearer will need in all 50 states this fall against George Bush.
Staff writers John Balzar, Maura Dolan, Bob Drogin, Ron Harris, Douglas Jehl, David Lauter, James Risen and Thomas B. Rosenstiel contributed to this story.