Political campaigns

How to “follow the money” when it comes to political campaigns — ProPublica

Why do we care about money in politics?

There’s a phrase that often comes up when investigative journalists talk about politics: Follow the money. It won’t lead you to uncover large-scale corruption (but if you do, please shout at us). This will increase your awareness of the industries that donate to the races you are interested in, and how your candidates spend the money they raise. Get more information like this by signing up for ProPublica’s Democracy User Guide.

Money in politics is blamed for being shady. But campaign finance isn’t just about the bad stuff.

For when that is the case, we have campaign finance laws. A quick history lesson: After the Watergate scandal (which, in addition to a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters, involved campaign funds being used for the scheme), Congress passed legislation requiring federal campaigns to report their political contributions and expenses to the Federal Election Commission. This was designed as a brake on corruption but also to hold voters accountable and keep you reasonably informed about money in politics.

Let’s see what money Is in a campaign. Seeing where a candidate’s money comes from, as well as the groups that spend for (or against) their campaign, helps you understand their beliefs, the advice they receive, and the kinds of policies they are susceptible to support.

What does a donation bring you?

If you are a candidate… Receiving donations can help you win an election. It’s not the only factor, but overall donations are spent on the day-to-day expenses of running a campaign. Take a look at how your contestants are spending their funds this season here, using ProPublica’s FEC Itemizer.

It’s probably stuff like lunch, plane tickets, campaign announcements, hotel rooms, and venue rentals for campaign events. The choices candidates make tell you about their priorities: where they spend their time, which voters they are trying to win over the most (older voters with TV ads or younger ones online) and how much they pay their staff.

Of course, candidates sometimes try to get creative in describing their campaign spending, like California Rep. Duncan Hunter, who, along with his wife, is indicted for spending donations on family trips to Hawaii. and in Italy and in a private school for their children.

If you see anything suspicious about your candidates’ expenses, or have any questions, let us know at [email protected]!

If you are a donor of a candidate… My colleague Justin Elliott recently reported on a major Donald Trump donor, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who contributed $20 million to Trump’s campaign and another $5 million for inauguration festivities. Since then, the Trump administration has helped advance some of its financial interests. For example, Trump reportedly raised Adelson’s bid to build a casino in Japan during Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Mar-a-Lago, and his tax plan included new benefits for companies like Adelson’s. .

But this is not the norm.

Most of the time, campaign donors don’t see a “return” on their investment. If you donate to a candidate, chances are you’ll get one of two things:

  1. The satisfaction of supporting a potential winner.

  2. Lunch. Or something like a lunch, with a chance to share your views with the candidate once he or she takes office.

Campaign donations aren’t meant to be transactional – it’s considered bribery, and it’s a crime. But they are a way to establish a relationship and open the door to conversations between the donor and the government. This is why, for example, defense industry PACs give to candidates who sit on the Armed Services Committee. They have an interest in talking to the people who help govern their industry. Conversely, when Representative Charles Rangel withdrew from the powerful House Ways and Means Committee for breaching ethics, his once loyal campaign donors disappeared because he no longer had an important role. for their interests.

Yes, it’s murky.

But, thanks to the post-Watergate Congressional Class of 1974, we can at least see what’s behind the curtains. If you donate $200 or more to a candidate, the campaign is required to report your name, address, and employer or occupation to the Federal Election Commission. Based on these documents filed by the FEC, as well as similar disclosures from political action committees, the Center for Responsive Politics (via its OpenSecrets.org site) determines which industries are funding candidates in your race.

Take a close look at the types of industries and interest groups that donate to your candidates. These can signal who has their ear.

If you are a super PAC donor… What you mostly get are negative campaign ads. Some of the biggest players in the countryside landscape are super PACs. These are political action committees that do not give directly to the candidate but spend independently to support (or oppose) them. These outside expenses are uncapped, allowing super PACs to raise any amount of money to influence a given race, usually for negative publicity. (You may balk at this, but, even though people claim to hate them, attack ads work.)

Think about the negative ads you’ve seen recently. Chances are they were funded by a super PAC, believing that certain voters can be activated based on their message. Knowing who these groups are can help you better understand their motivations (and better gauge whether you’re buying what they’re selling). Here’s where you can learn more about independent spending in your state’s races.

Super PACs tend to represent three main categories:

  • Single problem groups: Consider advocacy groups that focus on abortion, the environment, or taxes.
  • Partisan groups: These are super PACs formed under the leadership of key House and Senate leaders, such as the Congressional Leadership Fund (affiliated with Republican leaders in the House) and the Senate Majority PAC (linked to the Democratic leadership of the Senate). While lawmakers themselves aren’t allowed to solicit unlimited donations from super PACs they’re tied to, the people who lead those groups can do so on their behalf.
  • Family interests: Basically, it’s when a wealthy family member comes along (like Kansas House candidate Steve Watkins’ charge dad).

Outside spending by super PACs can have a big impact on an election. ProPublica and Politico recently reported on the Mountain Families PAC, a super PAC set up by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to intervene in this year’s West Virginia Republican primary. The group spent $1.3 million against Don Blankenship, a former coal baron considered the wild card candidate, in a three-way race. Blankenship finished third, and Mountain Families closed in May. Mission accomplished.


ProPublica has a tool called FEC Itemizer, which allows you to browse the commission’s campaign finance electronic filings. Until very recently, Senate candidates were doing the old school by only filing these reports on paper. This changed on October 15, and now you can also use the FEC Itemizer to track money in your Senate race.

Stay up to date on midterm election developments for voters like you across the country, check out the latest news from Electionland.

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