The key for examining independent expenditures is to search by race rather by candidate, and to note carefully whether an expenditure supports or opposes the candidates it mentions. The OpenSecrets.org data for Bishop’s 2012 House race includes a tab for independent expenditures that includes totals of how much was spent to support or oppose each candidate. Expenditures in favor of Bishop and opposed to Altschuler both represent spending on Bishop’s behalf, and adding up these totals shows that Bishop was supported by $1.4 million in independent spending in addition to the $2.7 million that he raised directly. His biggest outside spending supporters were the House Majority PAC, a national Democratic group; and two unions, the National Education Association and the Communications Workers of America.

For more detailed analysis, the Sunlight Foundation keeps race-by-race records of outside spending that offer two important advantages. The first is that they indicate clearly which candidate each expenditure supports or opposes, and the second is that data can be downloaded with a single click into Microsoft Excel. Once again, it is important to search by race rather than by candidate, since most outside spending funds ads that attack a favored candidate’s opponent without mentioning the candidate being supported. A quick Excel review of outside spending on Bishop’s behalf shows that his case is no exception: about $1.2 million of the $1.4 million that supported him came in the form of attacks against Altschuler.

The Center for Public Integrity offers searchable profiles of leading super PACs, nonprofits and mega-donors, providing helpful context on their activities, agendas and financial backers.

3) Issue Ads and Hidden Spending

Some political spending is almost impossible to track. Issue ads, also known as “electioneering communications,” can mention a candidate’s name but must focus on an issue and refrain from specifically calling for a candidate’s election or defeat. The political nonprofit groups that run issue ads are not required to disclose this spending to the FEC except in a short window before elections, even though many so-called issue ads are clearly intended to influence voters’ decisions. Courts have issued conflicting rulings on whether nonprofits that run issue ads are required to disclose their donors—most recently deciding that the donors could remain secret and prompting a rush of issue ad spending.

The fullest disclosure for issue ads is required by the Federal Communications Commission, which requires broadcast stations to keep a record of political ad buys. However, the FCC’s archive currently covers only the top 50 broadcast markets, consists of scanned disclosure forms rather than readable data, and cannot be searched by candidate or race—making it impractical to use in most cases.

The Sunlight Foundation’s outside spending database includes a limited record of electioneering communications, and its breakdowns of individual races include some issue ad spending. But because these messages are not supposed to advocate for a candidate’s election or defeat, the record does not show whom the spending benefits. Further research is necessary to determine these groups’ agendas, and in many cases these groups do not disclose their donors at all. In Rep. Bishop’s re-election race last year, the Sunlight Foundation finds no issue ads on record.

News reports are also a good source for finding announcements of “issue ad” buys. But reporters and citizens should be aware that under the current system, even a thorough examination of a politician’s funding will miss certain spending that legally remains in the dark.

Follow the author on Twitter @SashaChavkin. For more content like this, follow @USProjectCJR.

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Sasha Chavkin covers political money and influence for CJR's United States Project, our politics and policy desk. He has written for ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and The New York World. Follow him on Twitter @sashachavkin.