By Viveca Novak
Center for Responsive Politics

The 2012 election promises to be the most expensive on record. One important way in which it differs from the 2008 contest: the presence of more outside groups, spending much more money, thanks to the Supreme Court’s opinion in Citizens United v. FEC in 2010 and subsequent legal developments. It’s now legal for these groups – ostensibly independent of any candidate – to accept, and spend, unlimited amounts of money from virtually any source, including corporations, unions and trade associations.

That makes it more important than ever for reporters to examine not just the candidates running for office, but the other entities that are spending money to help them get there. Here are some questions to keep in mind during the campaign. Here are some questions to keep in mind during the campaign and some resources at the Center for Responsive Politics that can help your reporting:

For covering candidates:

  • How many donors have maxed out (giving $2,500 for the primary and $2,500 for the general election) to the candidate so far? How does that compare to the number who maxed out at this point in his or her last campaign?
  • For the presidential campaign: How many of those donors have given to one or more of the candidate’s rivals? How many have given to a joint fundraising committee promoting a candidate as well as his or her party, or also to a super PAC?
  • Who are the campaign’s bundlers – who’s putting together lots of checks to deliver to the candidate? These are individuals to whom candidates have reason to be grateful. Their voices are likely to speak louder than those of many other supporters, and they may reap rewards after the election. Campaigns aren’t required to disclose bundlers’ names, except those of federal lobbyists. So far President Barack Obama is the only presidential candidate who has volunteered to disclose all his bundlers. But prodding from the press and watchdog groups resulted in others doing so in 2008.  (Resource: 2012 Bundlers – Barack Obama)
  • How is the candidate spending his or her campaign cash? Are there lots of pricey meals or hotel stays? Is the campaign using vendors that have some tie, financial or familial, to the candidate?  (Resource, Expenditures Breakdown (example))
  • What can you tell from the candidate’s personal financial disclosure statement? What are his/her assets and debts, and which side of the balance sheet is larger? Is this a candidate who seems more or less likely to be able to relate to the 99%? Have incumbents gotten richer or poorer while in office, and how? Nearly half of all members of Congress in 2010 were millionaires. (Resource: Personal Financial Disclosure database)
  • Where (literally) are the candidate’s contributions coming from? What share is coming from his/her home state versus the rest of the country? What share is coming from fundraising hotspots like New York and California?  (Resource: Contributions by Geography (example))
  • Does the candidate have his/her own PAC, and if so, what can you tell from the donations the PAC is making? Is it giving to other candidates whose support will be important to the donor candidate in some way? Sometimes candidates’ PACs are used to fund travel and restaurant meals and the like. (Resource: Leadership PACs)

For covering outside groups – super PACs, 501(c)(4)s, 527s and so on, which are organized under different sections of the U.S. tax code, are affected differently by campaign finance laws and operate under varying disclosure rules:

  • What outside groups are active in the races you’re interested in? There have been super PACs dedicated to supporting all of the main Republican presidential candidates ­­– to what degree are they popping up in congressional races? Are they supporting a candidate or going negative?  (Resource: Outside spending by race and list of super PACs)
  • Who are funding the groups – corporations, unions, the traditional deep-pocketed, politically active individuals? Last year, a mysterious company called W Spann LLC gave $1 million to the pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future. It was a shell corporation, and in the ensuing uproar, the true donor came forward. Look for more like this, and press the group on who the real donor is. Contact the largest donors and ask them why they’re giving so much money.  (Resources: Top Overall Donors; Top Individual Donors; Top Industries (Presidential))

Are these groups pushing the envelope on prohibited coordination between candidates and independent expenditure committees? Are candidates showing up at outside groups’ fundraisers and appearing in ads? Are candidates and outside groups using the same vendors?

  • The FEC requires groups making independent expenditures to file notices within 24 and 48 hours of reaching certain spending levels. Review those notices and the list of new super PACs as a part of your daily routine. Who’s suddenly spending money? Who’s behind that super PAC with the vaguely patriotic name and whom is it organized to support or oppose?

Viveca Novak is editorial director at the Center for Responsive Politics.

This article appears in the Winter 2012 edition of The IRE Journal (Volume 35, Number 1)