If 2010’s $3.6 billion midterm elections are any gauge, reporters tasked with following the money in campaign 2012 face a tall order: unparalleled millions—much of it untraceable—spent on political communications; new breeds of intentionally opaque advocacy groups jockeying alongside corporations, unions, candidates, and parties to make the most of the ever-evolving patchwork of campaign finance regulations. It is plausible the president could spend $1 billion on his reelection bid. For reporters, a close familiarity with election law and the tax code would come in handy. Ditto, a sizable investigative team. To consider how reporters might confront these challenges, Liz Cox Barrett, a CJR staff writer who specializes in money and politics, spoke with Dave Levinthal this spring, when he worked as communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics and edited its OpenSecrets blog. Levinthal, a onetime Dallas Morning News reporter, will leave the center on July 15 to cover the influence beat for Politico.
What stories do you wish reporters on the money-and-politics beat would pursue?
Some of the most interesting stories to be had between now and 2012 will focus on the outside spending that’s going to be pouring into races all across the country. In the 2010 election cycle, in the aftermath of the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision, we saw just a flood of money come into the races—four times more than we saw in 2006. All indications are the 2012 election cycle will be utterly unprecedented in terms of this outside spending.
The bottom line is, it’s a brand new world for campaign spending of this sort, and reporters have an opportunity to try to track this type of spending, which in some cases is going to be even more than the candidates themselves are spending.
The question of Who Spends the Most Money to Influence Elections—Soros or the Kochs, union money or corporate money, Left or Right—seems to take up a lot of air. Is it overemphasized by the media, to your mind?
The challenge is to go beyond the numbers. If you’re just reporting that X group spent X amount of dollars in X state and offer no more, no context, no sense of what this is doing to the nature of the race, to the conversation in the race, then such stories can be a little thin and not necessarily provide the electorate with a whole lot of useful information. What people need to know is who candidates are being supported by, who their political brethren are, who’s opposing them—and why. Why is often the biggest question of all. Why would some big national group want to involve itself in a congressional election in northern Idaho or southern Alabama?
You are a go-to source for all manner of money-and-politics stories. What are the most frequently asked questions?
The campaign finance landscape at the federal level ranges from confusing to confounding. We get a lot of questions just about who is able to raise what, how much, what types of groups have to disclose their donors and don’t have to disclose their donors, whether candidates have the right to use money in certain regards or not in others. At the federal level—and the same at state and local—depending on who you are and what you are and what you’re using your money for, the rules can change wildly.
I like to tell the story of how we sat on the phone with The New York Times trying to pin down all the different permutations and spending limits and disclosure rules for all different types of groups at all different political levels. It took five or six of us numerous hours to produce a painstakingly detailed flow chart that ran in the Times. Here we are with one of the best newspapers in the world and it’s taking us an incredible amount of time to produce something that is not going to be completely impenetrable for the average reader. We were just about banging our heads against a wall. And that doesn’t even count the calls we made to campaign lawyers and others to double- and triple- and quadruple-check our work.