To follow the political money: a wonderful tool

And Virginia's newsrooms are under-using it

VIRGINIA—It might have been overwhelming for any newsroom to try to track the political advertising cash flowing into the Commonwealth this year. But it isn’t. As noted in earlier Swing States Project pieces, reporters here have a unique resource from which to draw: the Virginia Public Access Project.

The respected, nonpartisan Project has long followed the money in state and local races in Virginia, and this year it has expanded its efforts to look at spending in the presidential race. On Wednesday, the Project released a thorough report on television advertising spending by Super PACS and “social welfare” groups in the four largest media markets: Hampton Roads, the District of Columbia, Richmond, and Roanoke.

In its eight-paragraph summation, the project reported some stunners:
* Outside groups have spent $317 million on political ad buys in Virginia

* Half of that sum came from groups that don’t have to identify donors.

* Karl Rove’s groups, American Crossroads and Crossroads GPS, accounted for 50 percent of the ad money

* Groups on the right outspent groups on the left by three to one.

The Project also succinctly described Super PACS and “social welfare” groups—an explanation that made clear why it is that spending by outside groups has come to dominate this year’s election:

Super PACs: The Supreme Court has found there is no constitutional basis for imposing contribution limits on PACs as long as they do not donate money to candidates or coordinate their activities with campaigns. This has given rise to “Super PACs” that can accept unlimited donations—as long as they disclose their donors.

“Social Welfare” Groups: The IRS allows certain non-profit groups to engage in political activity as long as they are “primarily” engaged in enhancing social welfare. The lack of clarity behind the term “primarily” has spawned a new generation of 501-c-4 groups pushing aggressively in politics. These groups can keep their donors a secret.

That served as an introduction to the Project’s report, compiled from an extensive review of public records, and to an impressive array of eye-popping charts, timelines, and maps that breaks down the spending. You can easily learn who spends what according to their ideology; whether it’s “secret money” or from a group that must disclose its donors; and how much has been spent each month by the outside groups. You can also get a breakdown of spending in the presidential race, the senate race, and in the District 2 Congressional race.

That’s a lot of information. It’s a gift to any newsroom—as if they were granted a team of reporters and interns whose sole job was to wade through records from the state’s top television market stations and compile an extensive database on campaign advertising.

Who has money or manpower for that these days? No one.

So: How was the Project’s work used by Virginia newsrooms? And how can the work best be expanded upon?

The short answer to the first question: Newsrooms didn’t do nearly as much with this gift as they could have.

Several newsrooms today simply ran with the Project’s summation, as a rewrite with few embellishments, even to the point of including the quote from the release from David Poole, its executive director (unfortunately, not noting that the quote was from a press release).

In Hampton Roads, The Virginian-Pilot went beyond the report, though not far. The Virginian-Pilot hit all the high points of the Project report and also sought to enlighten its readers by adding a quote from a local television station sales director, as well as a graph or two from a local political science professor on how the ads are targeting undecided voters.

In Richmond, the Times-Dispatch today gave a barebones single-source look to its readers.

The Roanoke Times took the time in its Blue Ridge Caucus political blog to offer its readers a list of the outside groups topping the spending list in its market, and added several helpful links to pertinent parts of the Project report:

The Washington Post and others relied on a bare boned Associated Press story on the report.

There’s more work to be done.

For obvious starters, this Virginia Public Access Project report looked at spending by the outside groups, not the spending by the campaigns and the parties themselves. How much are these entities spending in Virginia, and how does that compare with the outside group spending?

Another helpful but easy use of the data would be to provide a breakdown of spending in an individual market, as Roanoke did, but to take it a step further and explore why groups on the right or left are targeting their particular message to your market.

Spending in the high-profile Senate race between two former governors—George Allen, the Republican, and Tim Kaine, the Democrat—also warrants more than the cursory look it was given today.

The Project reported that outside groups have spent $3.2 million on ads against Democrat Kaine, while pro-Kaine spending by outside groups is a bit more than $1 million. Meanwhile anti-Allen spending by outside groups tops $2 million. And there has been no spending so far by outside groups for ads supporting Allen. Why? This looks like a ripe topic for some additional reporting.

There are examples to draw from, since some nice work has already been done in following the political advertising money in Virginia.

For example, The Roanoke Times in July took an extensive look at spending in its market.

And The Associated Press, in mid-August, offered a nice summation on why the Commonwealth has been targeted for political advertising.

More will surely follow. The latest work by the Virginia Public Access Project offers an excellent starting point.

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Tharon Giddens logged more than two decades in newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina as a writer and editor. He is now living on an alpaca farm east of Richmond, Virginia.