By Chris Adams
The campaign finance beat is often envisioned as tracking donations to candidates – and that’s all.
In fact, money is infused into politics in multiple ways, and if reporters limit themselves to the routine articles about the biggest donor in the state – or how much the oil industry, or the chemical industry, or trial lawyers, or whatever sector – gave to campaigns, there will be plenty of stories left unexplored.
In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Edwin Bender of the National Institute on Money in Politics detailed the why of campaign finance – and especially the how of it. Bender, the institute’s executive director, detailed the massive collection of data that is available for reporters and the public in general at its FollowTheMoney.org website.
And the amount of data is significant. For 2018 elections, the institute catalogued 14.4 million contributions totaling $10.8 billion; in a year, it inputs 200,000 records from 18,000 candidates. It includes federal data as well as information at the state and local level – from statewide and legislative offices, to court races, to registered lobbyists.
Gathering the information is a massive undertaking, given the scope of the data and the patchwork quality of state-level information.
“Disclosure at state level in some states very good, in most is just good, and in some just awful – and not very uniform,” Bender said.
The numbers and dollars are just part of the story. The best stories that emerge from the data shed a light on policy preferences of the people who are or want to be senators, representatives, presidents and state officials. Bender also cautioned reporters against being too focused on the dollar signs. There are many motivators for candidates and lawmakers.
“Money isn’t the only criterion,” he said. “Partisanship means something.”
Bender described the data the institute compiles, as well as the extensive efforts it goes through to clean up and make uniform the contributions it codes. If somebody donates under different names – sometimes with a middle initial, sometimes without; sometimes with a “Junior,” sometimes not; sometimes from a home address, sometimes from a business one – the institute uses extensive automated and hands-on methods to standardize that name.