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Using Influence Explorer to Track Campaign Contributions

Want to find out who the special interests are trying to influence politicians at all levels of government? Influence Explorer lets you track the heavy hitters in all presidential and congressional elections. In this module, we will dig into the site’s features on campaign finance data. To start, let’s search for a politician who has a long and detailed history of raising and spending money: Mitt Romney.

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A special note about the profile pages: they generally default to the current election cycle. So, when we see that Romney has raised more than $195 million, that’s just for the 2011-2012 election cycle.

The only exception: when a candidate’s account hasn’t been active in the current cycle. In that case, the page defaults to “all years.” Use the drop-down to change the cycle or to see all cycles combined.

Addicts of political history can roll back the cycle to 1994 when Romney ran for Senate, losing to veteran Democrat Ted Kennedy.

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To dive deeper into the data for this election, select 2011-2012.

Let’s walk through the “Latest FEC Data” section

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It’s important to note that campaigns are only required to disclose details on donors that have given $200 or more. The timeline chart therefore only reflects large donations. That’s why the final number in the timeline is less than the reported total raised. For some candidates, a significant portion of their fundraising comes from donors below the reporting limit.

Use the links highlighted by the red arrow and download the raw data to analyze any way you like. They allow you to dig deep and discover the more subtle patterns of influence. We’ll discuss how in a future training.

Most users will find everything they need right on this page. So let’s scroll down to the next feature, which adds some important information to put the money and influence in context: independent expenditures.

The independent expenditures show you the outside groups who are giving to support or oppose the candidate. Here, Priorities USA Action, the super PAC that supports Barack Obama, leads the, pardon the pun, PAC with its spending opposing Romney. The second spender on the list is A super PAC backing Romney.

Unlike the campaign finance data, which can be several weeks behind, independent spending must be reported to the Federal Election Commission as it happens, so this information is updated daily.

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But let’s head back to Mitt Romney’s Influence Explorer page.

Further down, we find donor information.

You’ll notice a pie chart indicating the percentages of contributions from in state versus out of state. This chart is relevant for elections other than president, which is the only national election, thus the 100% “out of state” figure for Romney.

To determine “Top Industries,” Influence Explorer relies on data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which categorizes donors by their industries. This is a manual process, so these data lag FEC reports by several months. Nevertheless, this chart gives you a good idea of where a candidate’s deepest gratitude may lie.

Beneath the “Top Industries” chart are the “Top Contributors.” You might wonder how, in Romney’s case, Goldman Sachs could have donated $638,580, since corporations are barred from donating directly to political campaigns.

The answer is that the $638,580 figure, as noted under the heading, “includes contributions from an organization’s employees, their family members and its political action committee.” The chart is designed so that each bar is color-coded by individual contributions (in yellow) and PAC contributions (in orange). As you can see in this chart, all of the “Goldman Sachs” contributions came from individuals.

Even though the maximum donation to a political candidate is $2,500 per election (the primaries all count as one election), not all maxed-out donors are equal. Some are so-called bundlers, who gather contributions from others and bundle them together. Disclosure laws require the reporting of bundlers who are registered lobbyists, and we list them here:

Naturally, clicking on the lobbyist’s names takes you to their Influence Explorer profiles.

Next comes the parties! The “Recent and upcoming fundraisers” gives you a snapshot of the most recent fundraisers benefiting the politician we’re interested in -- in this case Mitt Romney. [Screenshot of party time list:

This data comes from another popular Sunlight database, Political Party Time. Political Party Time is a crowd-sourced site that aggregates and organizes fundraisers being held for the benefit of politicians. Party Time is a great resource that gets better the more contributions we get. So upload those invitations.

That completes our look at the campaign finance data available in Influence Explorer. Check back soon to learn how to do advanced searching with IE’s raw data.