Campaign Finance: Uncovering the Giving Habits of America's Top Executives
By Richard Dunham
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Go back to Tracker -- Summer 2000
In the hyper-competitive world of presidential campaign reporting, it's a constant challenge to stay ahead of the pack - particularly if you work for a magazine that is published weekly.
But the best way to get noticed, I've discovered as White House and national political correspondent for Business Week, is to create a specialized niche in the overcrowded marketplace of political stories. For me, that's been the political donation habits of America's top CEOs.
Early in the year, before the presidential candidates filed their first disclosure forms with the Federal Election Commission, I wrote a story about the early giving habits of prominent business figures. This was done the old fashioned way: a lot of phone calls to a lot of executives and to all of the campaigns.
As the campaign heated up after Labor Day, I devised a plan to take the next step: to comprehensively study the donation patterns of big businesses' top corporate executives. To beat the competition, we needed to do the analysis as soon as the 1999 third-quarter campaign spending reports - due on Oct. 15 - were made public.
At the start of the project, I composed a list of reporting goals: A simple scoreboard of the candidates' total number of CEO donors; an analysis of the extent to which CEOs "hedged their bets" among different candidates; a breakdown of corporate givers by economic sectors (such as technology, telecommunications, entertainment, finance and energy); and a review of the 2000 donations made by CEO backers of the 1996 Clinton-Gore team.
As a reporter with good (but not state-of-the-art) computer skills, I knew that I'd need a little bit of help to complete my analysis within days of the data becoming available. I got that assistance from Campaign for America, a nonpartisan watchdog group that enlisted two of the most knowledgeable money-in-politics experts, Kent Cooper and Tony Raymond.
We compiled a list of the top 1,000 corporations by market capitalization, with their addresses and chief executive officers, and arranged it in Excel.
Cooper and Raymond checked the list against the new FEC reports and came up with more than 5,000 possible hits.
We had to pare down the list by hand, eliminating people with identical names living in different states or people with different middle initials.
Just under 600 potential donors made the cut. We "scrubbed" the data one more time to make sure we didn't confuse fathers with sons, such as "Smith Jr." with "Smith IV."
Our final list had 538 contributions by CEOs. Some of these executives had donated to more than one candidate (some to as many as four White House wannabes) and some had sent multiple contributions to a single candidate. We even found four individuals who were CEOs of two different companies, so their contributions were listed twice in our database. Again, we adjusted our totals.
In the end, we found 389 contributors.
To analyze the contributions by economic sector, Business Week's Fred Jespersen sent us the magazine's computerized listing of corporations coded by economic sector. This is proprietary data, so it can't be replicated by outsiders, but a reporter can create a reasonable facsimile by looking up each corporation in a business directory like Standard & Poor's publication.
With the sectoral data now merged in our Excel files, we rearranged our data by sector and tallied the results.
As expected, George W. Bush had a huge lead among energy company CEOs. But he had an unexpectedly large lead over Al Gore among the Vice-President's beloved technology companies. In fact, Gore placed third behind Bill Bradley in techland. What's more, Bradley matched Gore in contributors among the big Hollywood CEOs.
Now, not many reporters will want to replicate this kind of a business-related story. But the methodology I employed can be easily adapted to any kind of campaign-finance search. There are computerized lists available of anything from lawyers to bankers to professional athletes. A regional reporter could pare down a list of CEOs (or bankers or lawyers) to include only those from a certain state or region.
The Internet has made it far easier for reporters to review campaign finance reports. Instead of spending days at the FEC offices poring over microfiche by hand, you can now download data from your office and analyze it in your own computer. Computer software won't do everything for you. But it's far easier for overburdened reporters to pursue an ambitious project these days that might have been too time-consuming just a few years ago.
Richard Dunham can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org