Now, in a time of campaign finance deregulation, what are the biggest obstacles to following the money (both tracking the money—how much, from where, to where—and tracking the effects of the money)? What makes this a tough beat?
For candidates, you’re able to see any donations more than $200 through our website. We break down those donations in various ways so you can see whether a certain industry is playing an outsized role in funding or supporting a candidate. We track about a hundred and twenty different industries and special-interest areas; we assign a code to every reportable donation that is made to any federal-level candidate. So if a VP of Chevron makes a donation to John Boehner or Nancy Pelosi, we’ll be able to say that a contribution from someone who works in the oil-and-gas industry went to Pelosi or Boehner. Now, multiply that by thousands and you see all the different candidates and all different types of money from these one hundred twenty different industries.
On the other end, go back to the brave new world, the widened avenue of outside money. These types of organizations that now exist—527 groups or super PACs or traditional PACs or not-for-profit entities or the types of political entities that can make independent expenditures—in some cases you can find out their donors. In many cases you cannot.
If you’re trying to find out who is raising money in order to air TV ads in a particular Senate or congressional race, if it is a not-for-profit organization then they don’t, by law, have any requirement to disclose their donors. So if $500,000 worth of TV ads has been bought up in your congressional district by a group called Americans For Peace, Love, and Joy and they’re a 501(c)(4) and they’re slamming the heck out of one candidate or lovingly promoting one candidate and you ask yourself the question, “Well, who’s funding them?” There’s no way to find out. That’s just the way the law reads at this point.
As you’ve touched on, one ongoing challenge is keeping readers’ attention, given the complexities involved. Any advice there?
Local is key. Can you go beyond the numbers and really tie those dollar figures to political movers and shakers, to people who may have prominent roles in your community, to political bankrollers? Then you have the material to begin asking questions. Why? What’s in it for them?
Those types of stories have multiple dimensions to them. You go beyond the horse race story to delve into the realm of payback. At the end of the day, if someone gets in a position of power, often his or her backers are going to come calling. The people with the thickest wallets can have the greatest sway or, at the very least, the greatest access to the politicians they’ve been backing.
Conversely, if you see some national groups or groups that don’t have a logical stake in a political race in a certain part of the country, that should raise a red flag for reporters. Use the money not as a reporting end in itself, but as a bridge to ask deeper questions about the role of special interests in elections.
Any predictions for what the top stories of 2011 and 2012 might be?
Absolutely. First on the list is the outside spending and how so many races in the country stand to be notably affected, if not dominated, by it. The presidential race stands to be the most expensive in US history, and the congressional races stand to be incredibly competitive; people with political money to spend will have that much more of an incentive to make a bet.
Also: the potential decline or even death of the public presidential fundraising system. Since Obama opted out of it in 2008 and most assuredly will do the same in 2012, special interests that push for public financing of federal campaigns may be in a more marginalized position than they have been before, particularly if Republican candidates also eschew public funding to raise and spend unlimited sums.