By Beverly Magley and Anne Sherwood
National Institute on Money in State Politics

For your stories about 2012 state elections, check out free campaign-finance information at The National Institute on Money in State Politics (followthemoney.org), a nonpartisan not-for-profit organization. In addition to downloadable data sets, you can mine reports on trends and anomalies, as well as overviews that compare and contrast campaigns and elections in all 50 states.

Here are the trends and issues the Institute is watching this year and some resources that can help you report on them:

  • Independent spending is on everyone’s radar since the Citizens United v. FEC ruling in January 2010. There are vast sums at stake here: See if your state even requires those expenditures to be reported and whether such spending has changed since the ruling went into effect.
  • Most of 2012’s 11 gubernatorial races will be highly competitive. As demonstrated by the recent political controversy surrounding governors in Wisconsin and Ohio, the party that wins the state’s executive seat could have a major impact on the state’s trajectory.
  • Keep your eye on state supreme court races, more important than ever now that anyone can spend unlimited quantities of money independently advocating for or against candidates. As demonstrated in Iowa in 2010, long-time justices facing retention elections may be thrown out due to their rulings on controversial issues.
  • Contentious ballot measures are also hot spots. Look for out-of-state money pouring into ballot committees, trace the history of similar measures in other states, and compare the current race by reading Institute reports about ballot measures.
  • Use the Industry Influence tool to check the top industry contributors to campaigns in multiple states. Is there a pattern, perhaps an orchestrated effort to change policies in favor of a particular economic industry? Also, look at how much was raised by candidates and partisan committees, as well as ballot-measure committees.
  • When covering incumbents running for reelection, use the Legislative Committee Analysis Tool (L-CAT) to see committees they have served on. Did lawmakers who voted for certain legislation receive contributions from the industry they might be regulating or impacting? Might it have inspired out-of-state contributions? Use Project Vote Smart to see how officials voted on key issues affecting those industries.
  • Is a candidate primarily financed by in-state or out-of-state money? Which state legislators are getting campaign money from within their districts—and who is financed from elsewhere?
  • Look at our (m)c50 tool to see how financially competitive past races have been in a certain district. Does one party or individual dominate the fundraising? Use the party control map to check if a legislative district is primarily Democrat or Republican and how and if it has shifted over the years.
  • Review how much candidates for a particular office have raised in the past. Compare that with current fundraising totals as they are made available to see who’s raising average amounts and who’s on a fundraising roll.
  • See how strong your state’s campaign-finance disclosure rules are, and put on the heat for improvements in transparency.
  • Stumped for ideas? Look at how other journalists are covering money in state politics.

Beverly Magley and Anne Sherwood are the National Institute on Money in State Politics’ communications team.
Reach them at 406-449-2480 or information@followthemoney.org.

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