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There’s a phrase that often comes up when investigative journalists talk about politics: Follow the money.
For journalists, that often means looking at how political campaigns are funded and who pays lobbyists. Today we’re going to talk about some of the methods we use to dig deeper into these topics.
This advice may not lead you to uncover large-scale corruption – let us know if you do, however – but we hope to better acquaint you with the industries that donate to the races you are interested in, how your candidates spend the money they raise and the outsized influence the ultra-rich can have.
Campaign Finance Laws Aim to Increase Transparency
After the Watergate scandal (which, in addition to a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters, involved campaign funds being used for the scheme), Congress strengthened laws requiring federal campaigns to report their political contributions and expenses to the Federal Election Commission. This was designed as a brake on corruption, but also as a way to keep voters reasonably informed about money in politics.
So let’s look at what money does in a campaign. Seeing where a candidate’s money comes from, as well as the groups that spend for (or against) their campaign, helps you understand their beliefs, the advice they receive, and the kinds of policies they are susceptible to support.
What a donation brings to the candidates:
Money can help someone win an election, although it is not the only factor. Overall, donations are spent on day-to-day expenses related to running a campaign. You can use FEC data to research how candidates are spending their funds this election.
It’s probably various things: lunch, plane tickets, campaign announcements, fundraising software, renting rooms for campaign events. In some cases, you might even see donations to the campaigns of other candidates they support. The choices candidates make tell you a lot about their priorities: where they spend their time, which voters they’re trying to win over the most (older voters with TV ads or younger ones online), and how much they pay their staff.
Of course, candidates sometimes try to hide the real purpose of their campaign spending. US Representative Duncan Hunter of California was sentenced to 11 months in prison in 2020 for spending 2018 campaign donations on family trips to Hawaii and Italy and private school for his children.
EXTRA: Representative Duncan Hunter charged
What a donation gets for campaign donors:
Individuals are allowed to contribute up to $2,900 per election to each candidate’s campaign. (A primary election and a general election count as separate elections, as do runoffs.)
Campaign donations aren’t meant to be transactional – it’s considered bribery, and it’s a crime. But they are a way to establish a relationship and open the door to conversations between the donor and the government. An example of this: In January 2021, The Intercept obtained a recording of a Zoom call Sen. Joe Manchin had with billionaire donors that shed light on the kind of access major funders have.
Most of the time, these donors do not see a direct “return” on their investment. If you donate to a candidate, chances are you’ll get one of two things:
- The satisfaction of supporting a potential winner who shares your values or goals.
- To access. Academic research has shown that elected officials are more responsive to requests for meetings from funders of their campaigns. When you give money, the recipients know it, and even if they don’t agree with all of your positions, they’re more likely to listen to you.
I know: it’s confusing.
More campaign finance news
But, thanks to the regulations of the 70s, we can at least see what is behind the curtain. If you donate $200 or more to a candidate, the campaign is required to report your name, address, and employer or occupation to the FEC. Based on these FEC filings, as well as similar disclosures from political action committees, the Center for Responsive Politics (via its OpenSecrets.org site) determines which industries are funding candidates in your race, and you can research it.
Take a close look at the types of industries and interest groups that donate to your candidates. These can signal who has their ear.
What a donation gets for Super PAC donors:
Some of the biggest players in the countryside landscape are super PACs. These are political action committees that do not give directly to a candidate but spend independently to support (or oppose) them. These outside spends are uncapped, allowing super PACs to raise any amount of money to influence any given race – and typically, super PACs spend money on negative campaign ads. (You may balk at this, but, even though people claim to hate them, attack ads work.)
Think about the negative ads you’ve seen recently. Chances are they were funded by a super PAC who thinks some voters can be activated based on their message. Knowing who these groups are can help you better understand their motivations and better gauge whether you’re buying what they’re selling. You can browse our FEC Itemizer database to learn more about outside spend in specific races.
Super PACs tend to represent three main categories:
- Single problem groups: Think of advocacy groups that focus on abortion, the environment, or taxes.
- Supporting groups: These are super PACs linked to key House and Senate leaders, such as the Congressional Leadership Fund (affiliated with Republican House leaders) and the Senate Majority PAC (linked to Democratic Senate leadership). While lawmakers themselves aren’t allowed to solicit unlimited donations from super PACs they’re tied to, the people who lead those groups can do so on their behalf.
- Family interests: Basically, it’s when a wealthy family member donates money to a campaign or supportive PAC. For example, New Jersey congressional candidate Bob Healey’s campaign is supported by a Super PAC primarily funded by a $2 million donation from his mother.
Outside spending by super PACs can have a big impact on an election. For example, the Saving Arizona PAC, which is linked to tech mogul Peter Thiel, is pouring millions into ads supporting Republican Blake Masters, who is running to unseat Senator Mark Kelly in Arizona. It comes after The Washington Post reported that Mitch McConnell asked Thiel to intervene in the race after he bankrolled the Masters in the primary.
How Businesses and Industries are Fighting Politicized Giving
A total of 147 members of Congress voted against certifying Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory. Pro-Trump Republicans had been planning the vote for weeks, advancing baseless allegations of voter fraud that had already been debunked by lawsuits, recounts and more. Until then, the certification vote had been symbolic. There was no procedural or democratic reason to vote against certifying election results, which were real voters, or state voters, who had already been sent by the states. A violent mob stormed into the United States Capitol and ransacked it, calling for the hanging of Mike Pence and more bloodshed.
January 6 Hearings – Day 1
In the aftermath, dozens of companies released statements that they would no longer donate to candidates who voted against certification of the election.
ProPublica is all about accountability, so naturally we wanted to know if they kept their word.
Sergio Hernandez, a news app developer here, looked into the matter. Using publicly available campaign finance information, he found that Fortune 500 companies donated millions of dollars to Holocaust deniers who voted against certifying the 2020 election. You can research the top beneficiaries of each company, individual contributions and whether they have delivered on their promises.
What about black money?
Transparency laws as written only provide us with a limited amount of information. Since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the black money (money spent by nonprofit political organizations or super PACs, which are not legally required to disclose donors) is flowing fast. This is one of the reasons ProPublica is busy. Sometimes it takes intrepid journalists who investigate full-time to uncover some of the ways the ultra-rich influence the workings of government.
‘Attack Philanthropy’: Right-wing billionaire fueled climate denial and conservative judges, schools
In August, ProPublica and partner The Lever revealed how an elderly, top-secret business owner named Barre Seid made the largest known political donation, worth $1.6 billion, to a charity organization. defense led by Leonard Leo, one of the main architects of the Conservative Party. efforts to remodel the Supreme Court.
According to a later investigation, Seid quietly funded right-wing causes using a strategy he called “attack philanthropy”. Seid has done much of his political fundraising while trying to stay under the radar. That’s one of the reasons you may never have heard of him. But the donors who help shape this country deserve as much attention and publicity as the politicians they support. After all, this country belongs to all of us.