Five questions to improve campaign finance reporting

In the next few weeks, campaigns will be releasing their third quarter campaign finance reports, for which the books closed on September 30th and which are due to the Federal Election Commission on October 15th. Reporting on these reports typically focus on amount raised in the quarter and the amount of cash on hand, as exemplified by this New York Daily News article from the last quarter. These headline numbers are no doubt important indicators of candidate viability, and as multi-candidate primaries are something of a coordination game, this viability information is important for potential primary voters deciding whom to support.  However,  the FEC reports provide data that allow us to answer questions about candidate strength that go beyond these headlines.  To that end, I encourage reporters covering the campaigns to consider the following questions:

  1. When did campaigns raise the money?  Campaigns are required to report to the FEC information on donations made by contributors who have given them more than $200 in total, though campaigns can choose to release this information about all their donors.  This information includes the name, address, and employer of each donation as well as the date and amount of each donation.  Since the Republican candidates have been jockeying for position, when they raised the money matters. If candidates raised a lot of money shortly after they first announced, but have had their fundraising collapse since, the total amount of money may not be the best indicator of future viability.
  2. Where did campaigns raise the money?  Money can be raised nationally, but state-level activist support matters for winning early primaries.  To that end, how many donors (at least of those who have given more than $200) live in early primary states?  As a side benefit, this type of reporting might encourage campaigns to release itemized donation information for donors who give less than $200, which would be good for both reporters and political scientists.
  3. Who is competing with whom for donors? Unlike voters, individuals can donate to more than one candidate in the race.  By seeing which candidates share donors — and when these itemized donors gave how much to whom — we can better see which candidates have overlapping bases of support and who is winning this competition over donors.  An even more sophisticated analysis of overlapping donors can be used to estimate donor and candidate ideology, but as a first cut it would be helpful to see which large donors have given to multiple campaigns.
  4. How much is going into “independent” PACs?  A relatively new development in campaign finance is the emergence of technically independent Super PACs that make expenditures to support only one candidate.  Mitt Romney, for example, is supported by Restore Our Future, Inc, a Super PAC formed by Romney supporters.  While such organizations cannot coordinate political activity, the way they are being funded makes it appear that they are becoming de facto arms of the campaign. For example, Romney has appeared at a Restore Our Future fundraiser.  Any estimation of fundraising support for the Republican presidential candidates must include these independent PACs.
  5. What is the right comparison? The New York Times has already featured flawed campaign finance reporting claiming that Obama hasn’t gotten the same support from small donors he got last time.  However, this compares all of Obama’s fundraising in the 2007-2008 cycle to a fraction of the time period.  Moreover, incumbent presidents have more capability to raise large dollars from access-seeking interests than do challengers. More still, in the last cycle Obama was fighting through both a hotly contested primary and a general election, whereas now he neither has a primary challenger nor (yet) a clear Republican opponent.  My research indicates that negative messages about the opposition raise funds, and as such we can reasonably expect small donor fundraising to pick up once Obama has a clear opponent whom he can attack. But this is just one example of the way that campaign finance reporting can get things wrong when it picks the wrong counterfactual against which to make comparisons.  Clearly, for the Republicans comparisons to their immediate competitors for the nomination are relevant, but since not all have been raising money for the same amount of time, even those comparisons should be made with caution.
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