IRE/NICAR Tipsheet No. 672

Making the Most of Campaign Disclosure Reports
IRE National Conference, Phoenix, June 1997

Padraic Cassidy
Newark Star-Ledger

We all know that campaign finance stories are important, but few of us can explain exactly why they are. We know there's something there, if only it were easier to figure out what. I have yet to read an election filing form that's clear, concise and easy to digest. Maybe that's on purpose, and maybe it's because the people that election disclosure laws are supposed to watch are the ones who wrote the laws.
Consider all the forms a candidate or committee must file; in essence there are balance sheets, and it helps to think of them this way. Contributions are limited to a certain amount and expenditures generally must be for campaign purposes. There is no shortage of experts to help you make sense of the piles of paper you will no doubt face when covering campaigns.
I find stories always benefit from making some basic assumptions.

1) Money means everything in politics. You can't do anything without it, from printing your name on signs to calling the news media, even paying for gas in the vans that drive senior citizens to the polls. Many politicians are willing to do almost anything to keep the money coming in, especially in a tight race. Good stories and story ideas can be found simply by calling up donors and verifying that they made the contribution.

2) Almost no one parts with their money on a whim. People give to candidates for any number of reasons-to get in good with the campaign, to grab the attention of the busy candidate, to return favors. To put it another way, look for a reason for every single contribution. When you begin to put the contribution together later to look for patterns, remember what some of the reasons might be.

3) Some of the most interesting stories come from what campaigns' buy with their money. The mayor of Newark, for example, spends more for fund-raiser and parties at one downtown hotel than all his challengers have spent in the last three elections put together. That led us to ask questions about the hotel's ownership and its relationship to the mayor.

4) There will be reason for contributions that can only be answered by constantly seeking relationships between them. Are contributors related? Where do they work? Can their lifestyles or occupations afford such giving? Are they in a district pr precinct that depends heavily on the candidates of jobs and grants?

This will help you break out of the dull and formulaic, "Candidate A spent/received X amount." All these questions lead to better stories, stories that we know people read.
The stories about which candidate is getting what and what is being spent where are important. But once the election is over, consider dumping the raw records for those stories into what others have coined a "Money Machine.' Think of the election disclosure forms as useful and reusable public records that you will refer to over and over, information you can use to document clear patterns of influence of power and money.
Campaign contribution and disbursement filings make excellent people finding tools because they are mandatory, regular and contain direct evidence of where people spend their cash (money talks).
At the Ledger, e found ourselves acquiring large chunks of data and filling huge file folders of records that we used for a single story. We decided to increase their value to us as a public records by reusing it as often as possible.

Before you toss that fat file into a drawer, never to be seen again, ask yourself these questions:

Are there other stories where I can use this information? You might not know all of the possibilities yet, but it helps to start thinking about those stories now, as your memory of the players is fresh.

What if I combined this information with other lists, such as registered voters or city employees? Are the people that supports the candidate or party even registered to vote? If not, what are their reason for giving? DO city workers give heavily? Why?

Is the candidate likely to run again? If so, you've got a handy list of supporters for the coming election. Check to see if his supporters follow him to higher offices and who he or she rewards with jobs and contracts. If the candidate isn't running, find out who the people are who give heavily, no matter who the candidate is.

A partial list of data sources to start building a 'people finder' and 'money machine'
Campaign contributions & disbursements
Registered voters
City & state employee lists
City Council vouchers (payments, reimbursements)
City board of Education employees
Ethics disclosure reports

A few web sites to refer to for help and guidance:
Former FEC staff Tony Raymond's site
Virginian-Pilot (and others) campaign finance project
The Federal Election Commission
Wendell Cochran's project and America University (
The Center for Responsive Politics and the National Library on Money and Politics