● How about the federal races in campaign 2012? The story of the year is spending by outside groups like super PACs and nonprofits, which according to the Sunlight Foundation has increased fourfold over comparable expenditures at this point in 2008. Both Sunlight and OpenSecrets allow users to sort super PAC spending in many ways, making it easy to see when money is coming into your state or district. OpenSecrets’s breakdown of outside expenditures by specific race is here; the Sunlight Foundation’s, which is part of its “Follow the Unlimited Money” page, is here. (Perusing this data, I noticed a small difference between the sites in the amount the Democrat-friendly House Majority PAC has spent campaigning against GOP Rep. Scott Tipton here in Colorado. Alerted to the discrepancy, Bill Allison at Sunlight and Viveca Novak at CRP were both responsive, and quickly sussed out that CRP’s OpenSecrets had the right data.)
Tracking super PAC spending at the state level is a different story; see this sidebar for more.
● OpenSecrets has a clever feature called Get Local! that will sort the data almost anyway you can imagine: top donors by state, leading industries for campaign contributions in a particular area, county-by-county breakdowns of giving, how much of a candidate’s money comes from out of state, and much more. You can even break down contributions by Zip code. I learned that here in Colorado, the Zip code doing the most giving so far during the 2012 cycle is in the Denver suburb of Englewood. Most of that money is going to Mitt Romney’s campaign, a pro-Romney super PAC, or the National Republican Congressional Committee. The single biggest donor in that neighborhood? Gregory Maffei, president of Liberty Media, who gave $100,000 to Romney’s friends at Restore our Future.
● Sunlight offers a variety of creative tools; one of the most imaginative is Politigraft, which filters a story to identify connections between candidates and the other people, companies, and organizations mentioned. (Here’s what it looks like for an installment of the Politico Influence newsletter.) The feature is available to the public, but Sunlight’s Bill Allison notes it can also be used by reporters prior to publication. “Say you’re writing about a state contract and there are state lawmakers mentioned,” he says. “You can run that text through Poligraft and just see if any of those companies have contributed to those state legislators or the governor or whomever.”
● How about other ways to get this data in front of local readers? These sites offer a mix of simple widgets and customizable APIs that will present their data on other sites. For example, OpenSecrets offers widgets that can show how much rival candidates in a House or Senate race have raised from a particular industry. And Sunlight offers ten “Politiwidgets,” including a basic “Top 5 Contributors” widget (not yet updated for the 2012 cycle) that lists a candidates’ major supporters. All the widgets are free, easy to build, and easy to embed in stories or blog posts.
News sites that want a greater ability to customize the data can upgrade to APIs, or application program interfaces. Project Votesmart, a voter resource site that is essentially an encyclopedia of elected officials, uses APIs to get its state campaign finance information from FollowTheMoney and federal figures from OpenSecrets. Local media organizations might use the same technology to cull the parts of this mountain of data that are relevant to their readers and stream it directly to their sites.
OpenSecrets offers a variety of public APIs and frequently writes custom APIs for media organizations—it has agreements with several dozen outlets this cycle—though theAPIs are generally free only to non-profit organizations and websites without advertising, said Susan Alger, IT director. You can read about developer tools from OpenSecrets here, and from FollowTheMoney here.