NICAR16: Tackling federal election campaign finance data

In an election year, NICAR was bound to feature plenty of election-themed sessions.One of the more interesting that I caught was “Election: Reverse-engineering campaign finance stories,” in which Aaron Bycoffe, Carrie Levine, and Derek Willis walked the audience through the steps they took to break various campaign finance stories.

Using an open-source parser to find small donations

In quarterly filings with the Federal Election Commission, candidates must declare how much they’ve raised and spent, among other things, during the previous three months. The filings generate plenty of news stories, most of which run the next day and summarize the data.

For FiveThirtyEight’s “Four Ways to Fund a Presidential Campaign,” however, Bycoffe wanted to go beyond summarization and show readers how much each candidate had raised from small donors.

He used the FEC’s electronic-filing search to find each candidate’s most recent filing and then Fech, a Ruby parser campaign filings from the FEC, to find identify small donors and compare those contributions to the total.

For those of us wanting to work with campaign data Boycoffe had two suggestions:

  1. Check out the FEC’s Committee Master file and Operating Expenditures file, which will help you find stories to localize.
  2. Do as much work as possible in a programmatic way so that you have a lighter workload when new filings are submitted.

Following up on traditional reporting with data

Levine found that pre-reporting was key for the Center for Public Integrity’s “Presidential campaign donors hedge bets,” which looked at how donors were distributing contributions widely among multiple candidates.

Through conversations with donors beforehand, she and her team developed a theory about campaign contributions that was then backed up by the data. This pre-reporting allowed Center for Public Integrity to run the story the night FEC filings came in and to beat major news outlets on the story.

Despite the success of the story, Levine stressed the importance of having a backup plan in place for when things inevitably fail. In fact, the hedging story ran into problems because some of the files were so big that the servers couldn’t process them. Instead of running SQL queries as planned, the data was put into Excel to conduct the analysis.

An alternative the campaigns’ filings

Though he’s now at ProPublica Willis was able to tap a unique data source for the New York Times’ “Bernie Sanders’ Early Online Haul: $8.3 million”: ActBlue.

ActBlue is a fundraising group for Democratic candidates and files with the FEC. Through ActBlue filings, Willis was able to see how much Sanders had raised online before his campaign had submitted files. In addition, ActBlue has to report donations of every size — even a dollar — so the New York Times was able to obtain details that normally wouldn’t be in Sanders’ campaign filings.

Willis noted that hundred of candidates use ActBlue, which makes its filings useful even in local races. The downside, Willis said, is that there isn’t a similar platform for Republican campaign contributions. A note of caution: The ActBlue filings are usually extremely large, which means you might want to split the data up before you approach it, he said.

About the author

Benjamin Din

Student Fellow

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