How to Cover the Money Race

A Q&A with money-and-politics expert Dave Levinthal

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.

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.

What do you make of the recent news that the IRS might begin collecting gift taxes on some big donations to nonprofit advocacy groups, the sorts of groups that have spent millions of anonymous dollars on political ads?

It’s emblematic that the landscape is in total flux. If the IRS does what the IRS says it’s going to do, it could turn off some big-dollar donors from actually making these sorts of donations. After standing on the sidelines in regard to this type of political activity, the IRS is showing some sort of willingness to inject itself into the process a bit more. Donors will have to, potentially, pay for their anonymity. If you want to make a big donation to this sort of an outside spending group, then what the IRS is effectively saying is, “We’re going to enforce charging you a tax for that.”

Looking back, what did reporters on the money-and-politics beat do well during the 2010 election? What stands out?

Generally, the coverage of the very turbulent, almost month-by-month changing nature of outside spending in the aftermath of Citizens United was excellent. There were some reporters who took great pains to explain exactly what was going on—a more than Herculean task. Everyone was effectively having to earn their amateur election law degrees in order to understand this stuff.

What were some holes or shortcomings in the coverage?

If you don’t invest the time to really understand the new rules and regulations, it is going to be harder to report on this in a worthwhile way and you open yourself to inaccuracy. You absolutely have to understand this very well in order to have any shot of explaining it in a clear way to a general readership—or even a specialized readership. It just takes a lot of time to build up the requisite knowledge. Do it now while you’ve got the time when things are not nearly as harried as they are going to be once the debates and the Iowa caucuses and the primaries heat up.

Last year American University cited as a key player in “the new journalism ecosystem,” along with nonprofit news outlets like ProPublica and MinnPost. You’ve traditionally been known as a place that generates data “enabling” good journalism. Are you now focusing as much on producing journalism of your own? Why?

The core of what we’re doing is always going to be centered around our research. Without that, we can’t help people, we can’t help journalists do their work, and we can’t produce anything of great value on our own. In recent years we’ve put added emphasis on doing our own aggressive journalism in the public interest. It’s something we’re really proud of. Increasingly, we’re partnering with news organizations, sometimes to run our stories in their entirety for free in their newspapers.

At the end of the day, our mission is to explore as deeply as we can and enlighten people as much as we can about the role money plays in politics. We see this as a next logical step for us in order to achieve what’s always been our mission, but in a media environment that has changed dramatically just in the past five years. We want to reach people where they’re looking for their information.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.