IRE/NICAR Tipsheet No. 475

IRE Campaign Coverage Workshop
January 20-21, 1996

Filling in the Picture: The data Beyond Contribution

Jennifer LaFleur, San Jose Mercy News
(408) 920-5728

David Milliron
Gannett News Service
(703) 276-5805

The ability to analyze contributions is a must for anyone covering a campaign. But sticking to just contribution data limits the possible stories you can do. Matching contributions with other databases can make for some powerful exposes of how politics in this country really work. This can better lead you to uncover what Larry Makinson calls "the phantom campaign" in the Follow The Money Handbook.

Match-making with date
The Process:
Liking date is much like winning the lottery: If all the number on your lottery ticket don't match the combination of number drawn in that week's lottery, you don't win! The number on each lottery ticket create what data users refer to as a unique identifier.

In database terms, a unique identifier could be your social security number, employee number or street address, etc. But you have to be careful at times. For example, a person's name isn't always unique identifier, especially if you have a common name such a John Smith.

Let's say you have a database of campaign contributors from the Federal Election Commission. The database contains the name of the contributor, their occupation, city, state, amount, date of contribution, and the candidate's ID number (which is a unique number assigned by the FEC to every candidate seeking office). The contributors database is great, but there are several flaws: the database doesn't provide you a street address, and the field that tells you whom the money was given is some mysterious ID code that must be deciphered. You could possibly obtain a street address by linking the date to other databases, such as driver license and voter registration records. But remember, you have to be careful about linking on just a name. A name and a date of birth would be better but isn't available.

And before we learn whose campaign the contributors we're financing, we have to link the database to the FEC candidate master database, which lists the name, address and office being sought. The unique candidate ID number I referred to above, is in both the contributors and the candidate databases. Using database management software such as Microsoft Fox Pro or Access or Borland Paradox, you could link the date on candidate ID.

Here's how it works: Using the database manager, you tell the program that where the candidate ID in the contributors database matches the candidate ID in the candidate master database, to link and append the candidate's name.

Lastname Cand ID
Occupation Candname
Cand ID Party
amount State

This technique can be applied to join FEC with many other databases to examine trends between contributions and other information.

Match-making with data
The Possibilities:

Here are some ideas for other data you may want to consider joining with contributions:

State, city or county vendors: Any big contributions getting certain contracts? How about employees from those companies?

Federal contracts: again, who's getting the contracts?

Physicians: Contributors don't always list their occupation. This would be a way to double-check. This list could come from a state's list of physicians or perhaps the AMA or state medical associations.

Example: When Republican Tom Coburn ran in 1994 to replace former Democratic Rep. Mike Synar, there were loads of physicians giving to his campaign. Naturally, since Coburn is a general family practitioner. A Gannett News Service reporter kept track of Coburn's campaign contributions and came up with more than $100,000 from just the physicians he could identify by the occupation they listed. The flaw in the data is the reporter inevitably missed some who didn't identify their livelihood.

Corporate databases: most of these are sold by commercial providers. This might be interesting to find Insurance companies, medical device manufacturers, drug manufactures and other categories.

FDA data: find out what medical devices or drugs are being approved.

Professional Licenses: Many states have either individual by category or one large database of professional licenses---this can help you identify contributors from certain industries.

Lawyers: Again, certain candidates may be getting a lot of money from attorneys. Association directories could be a good place to start-especially if you can get the information electronically. Also, the American Bar Association has a database of lawyers with sanction against them.

Trial lawyers-Trial lawyers gave substantial sums of money (more than $80,000 that Gannett News Service identified) to Democrat Jay Nixon when he ran against Republican Sen. John Danforth in 1988. Danforth was a strong supporter of product liability legislation, which the trail lawyers hated. But because trail lawyers usually list their occupation only as attorney or lawyer, Gannett News Service staffers had to double-check the contributors by hand from a copied printout of the ATLA (Association of Trail Lawyers of America) membership book. Trial lawyers give hundreds of thousands of dollars to political campaigns and most of the money flows from hard -to-identify individuals rather than PACs. The match here would be that annual or periodic membership book from ATLA.

Public Employees: Personnel databases would allow you to find out employees. Also if you can get the information in your state-check the payroll for business after the donation have been made.

In the Ohio governor's race in 1986, Democratic Gov. Richard Celeste screened all his contribution for state employees by matching their list of contributors with state personnel records. Celeste had been accused of stiff-arming state employees into contributing to his campaign. State personnel records are public records in most states.

Lobbyists: Build a database of lobbyists-are they big contributors to certain campaigns?

Democratic Rep. Mike Synar didn't take PAC contributions and prided himself on the fact. But in 1992 Gannett News Service staffers spent hours identifying his individual contributors to find out that Washington lobbyists and lawyers accounted for the biggest bulk of his contributions. The match here would be lobbyist registration records.

EPA data: Are companies with big environmental violation giving money to certain issues?

Nursing home owners, operators-usually a big lobby in every state.

Gubernatorial appointments-If an incumbent, who they've named to jobs. If a candidate, keep track of the contributors because an inordinate number of appointees will come from that list.

Non-profits: Check 990 from sot check for staff list for matching-also look for candidate names as contributors to the organization. While there is not comprehensive database of 990's many are on-line at gopher:// Also most states also require non-profits to file a state form -many of those are available electronically.

Just for fun....
Match against the ever popular pet licenses databases from your city-perhaps those aren't children but pets as well.

The following are other campaign finance possibilities excerpted from "101 Computer-Assisted Stories" and "100 Computer-Assisted Stories," both available for a nominal fee from Investigative Reporters and Editors:

Budget Increases- The San Francisco Bay Guardian in 1985 found evidence that state legislators were, in part, paying for their re-election campaigns through their districts office budgets. Almost every legislator's office budget went up in election years and down in off years. The paper found one state senator, who was facing a tough re-election campaign in 1984 had a 63 percent increase in his office budget. The paper narrowed it down to three main areas: printing and publishing district "newsletters, " office duplicating and phone calls.

PACs-The influence of political action committee contributions on lawmakers is generally assumed. A computer-based study of contribution to Michigan's legislative candidates by Booth Newspapers proved that dollars can bring favorable votes from lawmakers by showing direct connections between contributions and votes. In case after case, lawmakers receiving money from certain Political Action Committee's were much more likely to vote for issues favorable to those PACs than lawmakers who were not beneficiaries of the PAC money. Legislative leaders have set up multiple PACs to accepts money from interest groups. Those leaders then use the money to make contributions to other candidates, helping increase the influence of top lawmakers. For instance, 14 committees under the control of the Senate Republican leadership received $406,000 from interest groups, then contributed $462,000 to candidates for the state senate. A handful of Michigan lobbying firms have control over half a million dollars or more of PAC contribution and coordinate those contributions to increase influence.

Pay to Play-In a 14-month investigation, the Akron Beacon Journal found a powerful Ohio legislator who managed over 15 years to transform state government into a pay-to-play proposition. Those who wanted action in Columbus had to give-generously and often. The reporters unearthed a hidden money pipeline through which huge corporate contribution flowed to the legislator and others; documented lucrative legislative favors bestowed on utility companies, the biggest pipeline givers; detailed how the legislator controlled the Houses' Republican minority by using the legislative process to further the minority leader's private business interests; detailed how a huge Cleveland health-insurer bought its way through the state house with disguised contributions to the legislator and his allies; found other instance of bills changing course when key lobbyists were hired or when money changed hands.

No-bidding-The Dayton Daily News looked at campaign contributions in the gubernatorial race using a computer to track the relationship between the candidates and their contributors. The project found attorneys who received no-bid contracts from the attorney general's office for contributing about $310,000 to the campaign of the attorney general running for re-election. The project found lawyers circumventing campaign finance laws by making contributions through relatives. The project revealed that although one candidate claimed to be running a "grassroots" campaign, most of his support came from the boardrooms of Ohio's largest corporations. With 67 percent of donations coming from 8 percent of the contributors.

Creative financing-Financing for the Wisconsin gubernatorial campaign was a lopsided affair the incumbent governor collected 40 times as much in large contributions as his well-known challenger, the Milwaukee Journal found in a computer analysis of public records. His campaign was the best financed in Wisconsin history, marked by the most systematic fundraising efforts. The stories illustrated the advantages of incumbency and the power of business executives and residents of certain affluent communities.

Preferential Treatment-Though forbidden by law to make political contributions, the Louisville Courier Journal found scores of companies that do business in Kentucky have funneled huge amounts of money to gubernatorial candidates by having their officers and employees contribute. Coincidentally, the winning candidates then gave the donors employers preferential treatment after the election. The paper analyzed contributions received from architects and engineers who compete for no-bid state contracts and showed that big givers get big contracts. Kentucky candidates raised and spent $19 million in 1991 gubernatorial primaries. That's the fifth highest amount in the nation, despite the fact that Kentucky ranks 43rd in per capita income.

Money talks-The Albuquerque Tribune found New Mexico legislature was dominate by special interest; 72 percent of all campaign funds came from special interests; state campaign finance laws were a joke; fundraising occurred simultaneously with law making; lobbyists failed to report properly; bills with money behind them would go farther; appalling conflicts of interest were tolerated in the name of "citizen legislature." The series took New Mexicans into the process and let them judge for themselves whether the flood of cash that descends on lawmaker during each year's 30- or 60-day session of the legislature influences them.

Neighborhood Mayor-The Boston Herald in a four-day series examined a seven-year period of Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn's campaign donor list, Flynn, an emerging national figure who had cultivated an image a the "neighbor" mayor who shuns special interests, has amassed well over $1 million in the bank, The series found that despite Flynn's reputation, his fundraising relies heavily on a group of persons who do business with the city, are city employees or have a direct or indirect financial interest in city government. Of the donor's, The Boston Herald was able to identify in the years 1987-89, about 87 percent had a stake in city government. Hundreds of Boston police officers and civilian employees gave money to Flynn in violation of a department regulation forbidding campaign contributions of any kind. Corporate executives and real estate developers gave large clumps of campaign donations just as they were seeking approval for construction projects or other business plans. A sample of no-bid contractors, whose city contracts receive little oversight, showed that many were heavy donors to Flynn.

Cashed Out- Politicians like to say they serve only one constituency: their voters. But increasingly, they are devoting time and attention to another constituency: the special interests who pump hundreds of thousands of dollars into the re-election campaigns. Unfortunately, in the case of state and local politicians in Massachusetts, it is almost impossible for the average citizen to find out who those interest are, learned the Eagle-Tribune in Lawrence. Campaign finance reports list the names of individual contributors but not their affiliation. Among the paper's finding: Republican Gov. William F. Weld, who ran as a government outsider, received tens of thousands of dollars from the people who contributed to the entrenched Beacon Hill insider he denounced. While Weld made a point of refusing money from political action committees, he accepted money from individual members of those PACs. Insurance interests figured heavily in Weld's donor list, and Weld chose as his chief fund raiser the managing partner of a lobbyist firm that specialize in insurance issues. Well-connected contributors who "maxed-out" on the $1,00-per-individual contribution limits, often gave in tandem with spouses and family members who also gave Weld the maximum. Nearly half of Weld's money came from maximum $1,000 contributions.

Cost of doing Business-Legislators who faced no serious challengers in 1990-almost half the California legislature-raked in huge amounts of campaign cash and spent it on things having little to do with reelection, the Sacramento Bee discovered. The bulk of the funds were spent on wielding power by doling it out to other candidates, initiatives and charities. More was spent on meals than on voters registration. They story exploded the myth that incumbents must raise vast amounts of money because campaigns are expensive The fact emerged that election campaigning is relatively inexpensive; it is all the other use of campaign money that make campaigns appear expensive.

Soft Money: "George Bus's Ruling Class" reveal in detail how the Bush administration granted unusual access and political favors to member of Team 100, the corporate executive and wealthy business people who each contributed at least $100,00 in "soft money" to help elect President Bush in 1988 and, in many cases additional sums toward his 1992- reelection bid, reported Common Cause Magazine in Washington D.C. As the investigation reveals, Team 100 members enjoyed extraordinary influence with the administration while they sought and obtained lucrative pork-barrel handouts, unprecedented import-exported assistance, high-level intervention on regulatory and other matters, a key voice in broad national policy-making, and appointments to ambassadorships and federal advisory commissions critical to their business interests.

Follow the Money
The only bipartisan issue Pennsylvania legislators agree on is that there is no need for campaign finance reform, reported the Greensburg Tribune-Review. The system allows special interest groups to give millions of dollars to friends; it allows lobbyists to ignore disclosure requirements; and it permits virtually unlimited transfers of money. Why would the leadership want change? The Tribune-Review wondered why all reform efforts have failed, how PACs "launder" money to shield the identity of donors and how lobbyist flout disclosure requirements. The staff built three databases for this project: a PAC database, a lobbyist database and a database of expenses. The databases allowed the staff to follow the money paper trail.. The project led to attempts at reform in the legislature, tow months after the stories were published.

Home Free- The State-Journal Register in Springfield, Ill., used computer-assisted reporting to examine the effect of campaign contributions on state legislation. Illinois has virtually no regulations on campaign finance. The stories showed that the timing and direction of campaign contributions affected pending legislation; that special interests groups target certain legislators and committees; and that Illinois regulations are among the most lax in the nation.

Match-Making with data
The Precautions:
Here are some guidelines and pitfalls to watch for when matching contribution data with other resources:

1. Remember: a name is NOT a unique identifier-there are many people with the same. For example, there's another Jennifer LaFleur living in Austin, Texas. Try also to match again ZIP code or better yet, address.

2. If you're building your own database, split first and last names into separate fields and use all upper case. That may prevent case-sensitivity problems later. Access and FoxPro are forgiving when it come to case, however, Paradox is not.

3. Test your matches with dummy records. Add a dummy record you know matches in both databases to test your queries

4. Know your data. Make sure you understand what all the fields in both databases mean and get definitions of any special coding.

5. Building your own database: it might be worth while to have the data entered professionally. Many data entry house also will do double-enter the data and check for inconsistencies. Make sure the company has specific guidelines, however.