Posted on | April 28, 2012 | 30 Comments
Newt Gingrich campaigns in Fort Myers, Fla., Jan. 30, 2012
Before we get to the news, let me make a disclaimer: Every time I criticize Newt Gingrich’s disastrous presidential campaign, some of Newt’s supporters get angry at me and seem to miss the point of my criticism. From my perspective, the person Gingrich’s admirers should be most angry at is Newt himself, because if you thought he was the best candidate, the mismanagement of his campaign is a grievous fault.
In my mind, however, the two phenomena are inseparable: Good candidates do not run bad campaigns. Trying to explain this point of view — that of someone who is a longtime student of campaign tactics and strategy — is difficult, because most people don’t look at the political process the way I do. Ali Akbar keeps bugging me about an idea for a book I once suggested, to be called Operatives, about the people behind the scenes of campaigns. Spend enough time with operatives, the hired guns whose job is win elections, and it changes the way you see politics.
All of that is sort of an apology in advance to Gingrich supporters for returning to a theme I’ve been pounding since Feb. 21 when, reacting to the release of Newt’s FEC report for January, I declared that his campaign’s “burn rate” was unsustainable. (For that matter, Mitt Romney’s burn rate in January was also unsustainable, but Romney began the year with cash reserves Newt didn’t have, and Mitt had much greater fundraising potential.) Gingrich’s failure to win in the weeks after South Carolina, especially his fourth-place finishes in Minnesota (Feb. 7) and Maine (Feb. 11), suggested a campaign that was much weaker than anyone might have gathered from watching TV coverage.
Then there were the reports that Newt spent a lot of time leading up to the Feb. 4 Nevada caucuses “dialing for dollars,” trying to raise money. Those reports didn’t make headlines; they were buried deep in longer articles (e.g. a Feb. 2 Washington Post story) but I noticed them and was puzzled. Given that Gingrich had out-raised Rick Santorum more than 10-to-1 in the third quarter of 2011 (Newt $9.8 million, Santorum $924,000), and Gingrich had raised $5.6 million to Santorum’s $4.5 million in January, this seemed bizarre. Why this evidence of financial desperation at Team Newt, while the Santorum campaign — which had raised far less money up to that point — showed no sign of a cash crunch?
Subsequent reports have clarified the picture: Gingrich’s contributions, which had surged before and immediately after his Jan. 21 win in the South Carolina primary, declined noticeably after he stumbled in the Jan. 23 debate in Tampa and the Jan. 26 debate in Jacksonville, then fell dramatically after he lost the Jan. 31 Florida primary by 14 points. We didn’t know that until after the February FEC reports were published March 20, but there was a telltale clue in the silence from Team Newt in early March. The Santorum campaign announced on Feb. 29 that they’d raised $9 million in February, and a few days later, Romney’s campaign said Mitt had raised $11 million in Febuary, but you could hear the crickets chirping at Gingrich HQ, as far as finances were concerned. So on Tuesday, March 13, I suggested two important questions:
Question 1: How much did Newt raise in February? Question 2: What was his campaign’s cash-on-hand and total debt as of March 1?
Something seemed very suspicious about the situation, and those who have closely examined the Gingrich campaign’s more recent FEC reports are now asking some troubling questions:
As the presidential campaign of Newt Gingrich persevered despite no realistic prospect of victory, the former House speaker spent lavishly on the trappings of a more-successful, high-profile campaign, spending more on travel and security in March than Mitt Romney did, records show. . . .
Watchdogs said the fact that the numbers are so high raises questions about whether Mr. Gingrich might be profiting from the funds.
“Hopefully, the Federal Election Commission will do its job and, to the extent red flags are raised by these extraordinarily high travel fees, investigate,” said Paul S. Ryan, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center.
Campaigns are required to disclose the ultimate destination of campaign funds, not merely note they are “reimbursements” for unspecified expenses — a requirement that specialists say places the Gingrich campaign’s accounting at odds with federal law.
“It’s clearly illegal to convert funds to personal use, and the disclosure requirements are intended to enable enforcement … but we don’t have that disclosure,” Mr. Ryan said, noting that it would take an audit to determine whether Mr. Gingrich was profiting from the $271,000 he was paid. . . .
[Gingrich campaign spokesman R.C.] Hammond said the $1.1 million debt to Moby Dick Airways, reported as “incurred” during March, actually covered a longer time, despite the fact that the campaign has reported a running and steadily increasing tab with the airline each month.
If true, that practice has mischaracterized the campaign’s standing for months, making Mr. Gingrich seem more viable than he was early in the campaign and allowing the campaign to suddenly plunge deeply into debt later.
Mr. Ryan said such back-loading also violates FEC rules, which require goods and services to be recorded as debts or expenditures during the month the campaign benefited from them — “not when a bill is received.”
While I had suspected the Gingrich campaign of mismanagement, it hadn’t occurred to me that they might actually be violating federal law, and this suggestion that Newt himself was skimming the till — well, let’s hope that’s not true. Otherwise, the “Road to the White House” could become the “Road to Federal Prison.”
(Hat-tip: Lisa Graas on Twitter.)