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Following money trails in election coverage

By Tyler Wornell 

Tracking the flow of money in an election can be a crucial reporting tool for knowing who’s influencing elections and how. Tracking some of that money could prove difficult, though.

In Friday’s CAR Conference panel, “Wagging the Dog: Using campaign finance data to cover the midterm election,” Denise Roth Barber from the National Institute on Money in State Politics,

Ken Schwencke from ProPublica and Christopher Schnaars from USA Today discussed how to access Federal Election Commission filings and what data is available from them. These reports can be useful in discovering the key players who may be trying to influence an election, and can give you an idea of what type of support candidates have.

When looking at campaign finance data, there are few things to look for, including:

  • How much did the group or organization raise? How does that compare with earlier reports?
  • How much cash does the group have on hand?
  • How much comes from small donors?
  • For Super PACs, who are the megadonors?
  • Are there any loans? Are groups funding themselves?

The campaign finance reports can be downloaded as CSV files directly from the FEC’s website, making it easy to obtain and analyze the data. You’ll need to watch out for a few things in the data, though. The forms and where they show information can vary depending on the candidate you’re looking at. Donations to a House candidate may appear on a different line of the form than they do on a form for a presidential candidate. Always double check the numbers that you’re pulling from the form.

ProPublica has a great tool called the ElectionBot, which provides real-time updates on campaign finance data. It also provides other information such as when candidates are trending on Google, when candidates delete tweets and vote activity from members of Congress. It takes all of the information from those FEC filings and compiles them into a real-time stream, making it easy to search and sort through information.

If you’re looking for campaign finance data that’s already been sifted and sorted, the National Institute on Money in State Politics is a great place to go. The group collects comprehensive campaign finance data for both federal and state elections and provides analysis based on that data.

The NIMSP collects data for direct contributions to federal, state and select local campaigns, independent spending for federal campaigns and selected states, and state lobbying expenditures in selected states. The group also provides contributions disclosure scorecards, independent spending disclosure scorecards and a competitiveness index, among other tools.

When looking at campaign finance data, it’s important to look out for “dark money.” This is money used to support a candidate that is funneled through nonprofit groups. It’s dubbed “dark money” because these certain nonprofits are not required to disclose their list of donors. Dark money is becoming a large issue in state elections, and the NIMSP also has a scorecard for states who allow dark money in campaigns.

Campaign finance data is one of many tools available to find stories about politics and elections. You just have to follow the money.

Tyler Wornell is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.

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