IRE/NICAR Tipsheet No. 509

Providence 1996

Getting a handle on the money in election campaigns
A short update to the Follow The Money Handbook by Larry Makinson, Center for Responsive Politics

Every election year -- far out of earshot from the madding crowd of voters, campaign volunteers, and reporters -- an invisible campaign is taking place for the hearts, minds available cash of political donors.

Almost no candidate is immune from the rigors of this phantom campaign, whatever office they're seeking. For Congressional candidates, who often raise half a million dollars or more for a competitive race -- or ten times that amount for a shot at the U.S. Senate -- fundraising eats up about three-quarters of all the time they spend on the campaign trail.

Access to campaign cash has become an ever -- more crucial element of political success, so the job of tracking where that money comes from has become all the more important for reporters and news organizations.

How do you do it?
The ideas below specifically address congressional campaigns, but the same points could well apply to legislative, gubernatorial and local campaigns anywhere in the country.

1. Collect all the reports you can get your hands on.

During election years, congressional candidates file about half a dozen campaign finance reports with the Federal Election Commission in Washington, D.C. Reports are due quarterly, as well as before and after primary and general elections. During off years, candidates file every six months.

The reports show how much money the candidate has raised and spent, how much came from PACs. Individuals, and the candidate's own pocket. They also itemize all contributions of $200 or more, as well as expenditures. Importantly, those $200+ contributions list not only the donor's name and address, but also what they do for a living and who they work for.

The FEC computerizes the contributor data and posts monthly updates on its new web site -- www.fec.gov. You can download several entire databases from that site -- including all PAC contributions and all individual contributions of $200 or more. The only catch is you have to download the whole database, you just can't choose one candidate. And those files can be HUGE. The PAC database is currently 1.8 megabytes, zipped. The individual database is over 20 megs, also zipped (When decompressed, it takes up 150 megabytes of hard drive space.

A new -- and probably more practical -- alternative is to point your browser at www.tray.com/fecinfo. This site is maintained by former FEC staffer Tony Raymond, and now features direct searches by names, occupation/employer/or zip code of the entire 1995-1996 FEC database. This was formerly available only by logging on to the FEC's $20-an-hour database, but it's no free and on the web.

Another new site -- from the Center of Responsive Politics -- will be up and running shortly,. The address will be www.crp.org and you'll find it by the end of June. By the thick of the election season, the site will feature breakdowns of candidate's contributions by industry an interest group, so you can see at a glance how much someone is getting from insurance companies, oil & gas producers, labor unions, or any other group that contributes to campaigns.

The only catch with all these sites is that they are all dependent on the FEC to computerize the raw reports. At this times, despite the fact that virtually every federal candidate, PAC and political party uses computers to produce their FEC reports, the agency will only accept them as paper printouts. They then hire inputers to retype everything into computer format. This process typically takes at least three to four weeks, and you can expect a six week (or longer) backlog as election day draws nearer.

Don't hold your breath waiting for any changes. The FEC moves like a glacier, and does not expect to have full electronic disclosure until 1998 on a limited basis, and 2000 on a large scale.

The best alternative is to go to the candidates directly and ask for their reports on disk. Obviously you're dependent on their cooperation, but they're also dependent on keeping you happy/appeased/off their backs, so if you press them you may get the reports you want. Given the alternatives -- hand-entering the data yourself, waiting for the FEC to computerize it, or forgetting the whole thing until after election day -- it's worth a shot.

2. Digger deeper than the obvious

You can certainly write a quick story on who's raised the most, how much they're collecting from PACs and their own pockets, but that's not going to tell voters anything they can't already tell by turning on the TV or looking in their mailbox. In the 1994 elections, nearly 90 percent of the candidates who spent the most won at the polls.

What really gives you a sense of where the candidates are coming from is an industry-by-industry analysis of who's applying the bills for their campaigns.

Typically, members of Congress draw on two main sources for their campaign cash -- the economic elite of their home state or district and the Washington-based community of interest groups that lobby them on Capitol Hill. When you look at contributions from individuals, you'll find lots of oil money in Texas, timber dollars in Oregon and Washington, banking and securities money in Boston and New York. You'll also find plenty of contributions -- regardless of the region -- from lawyers, doctors, and real estate agents and developers.

PAC contributions may represent the local economy, too, but they're more often tied to incumbent's committee assignments back in Washington, Essentially, the most reliable source of campaign funds for most member of Congress are the industries and interest groups they're supposed to be regulating, along with the lawyers and lobbyists who represent them.

Democrats can generally count on plenty of support from labor PACs though incumbents typically get more from business interests than from Labor. Lawyers have also been heavy backers of Democrats. Republicans generally get very little labor money; their campaigns are almost entirely paid for by business groups. As a rule, most incumbents get only a small proportion of their campaign funds for ideological and single-issue groups.

The first step in monitoring the cash constituents of your congressional delegation is to categorize the contribution by industry and interest groups. The Center for Responsive Politics (202-857-0044), and its National Library on Money and Politics (202-857-0138), can help you with that. The Center has been tracking money to federal campaigns since 1988 and has categorized all the PACs and thousands of individual business that show up in campaign reports.

You can get reports showing the industry-by-industry backing of candidates from the Library. You can also get a copy of the Center's category codes, so you can do the work yourself.

A great (and cheap) source for identifying the economic interests of companies is the SelectPhone Business CD-ROM. It lists names and phone numbers for about 10 million businesses across the country. Most importantly, it also lists the category the business advertise under in the Yellow Pages. The CD costs about $40 mail order and works on both Macs and PCs

If you want help in coding contribution or setting up a database of your own, call the Center for a copy of the Follow the Money Handbook. It's free to journalists, and will give you over 170 pages of tips and hands-on advice for getting to the bottom of a fundamental question every reporter ought to be asking this year: Who's paying for this election?