Glimpse of biggest donors found within mountain of searches and spreadsheets
What do you get when you lock a reporter in a proverbial box and let him run wild with Excel spreadsheets?
Or, perhaps, hair-tugging insanity.
To be fair, my editors didn’t literally lock me in a box over the last few weeks. They gave me enough space from the daily grind to research the biggest campaign contributors in Missouri politics. The data for this project came from the Missouri Ethics Commission and followthemoney.org, which track donations to state candidates and causes, the Federal Election Commission, which tracks contributions to federal candidates and committees, and OpenSecrets.org.
I sorted out and tabulated state and federal donations from 2008, 2009 and 2010 to find out who the big contributors in those election years. As the 2012 election moves forward, information on that donor pool will be updated and expanded.
Political reporters in Missouri know the Missouri Ethics Commission quite well; it’s the go-to place for information about campaign contributions or lobbyists' gifts. The current site features plenty of useful features, especially a section showcasing donations of $5,000 or more.
But the commission was a different animal in 2008, 2009 and 2010. As I went through the data, I noticed that a single contribution could show up multiple times mainly because it was featured in amended reports. Weeding those out took up a lot of time and double and triple checking.
(To the commission's credit, this quirk has generally been ironed out with contributions after 2011, which should make updating the data much easier.)
Another challenge: I wanted to make sure the totals reflected the realities of Missouri's campaign finance system. Prominent donors regularly give not only to candidates but also to political party committees, ballot initiatives and third-party political action committees. Even after campaign finance limits were removed, third-party PACs have continued to play a big role in how political campaigns are funded. So it was important but time consuming to incorporate all this information.
If that weren't enough of a complication, there's also the federal campaign finance system, which couldn't be more different from Missouri's. For one thing, Missouri is one of four states without campaign finance limits. Donors to federal candidates must adhere to donation limits to candidates and party committees, although those regulations aren't necessarily in place to third-party PACs. The results were predictable: Donations to state candidates and causes were much, much bigger than contributions to federal candidates and committees.
Because of the innumerable quirks in this seemingy endless sea of contributions, the data in individual profiles were checked -- and rechecked -- multiple times. I also tabulated and organized contribution data for donors who didn’t crack the top 10, just to make sure somebody wasn’t inadvertently left off the list. So I believe that the numbers are as accurate as possible, but if any donation turns out to be inaccurate or missing, I will make changes.
Of course, it’s one thing for a reporter to embark on this type of project. It’s another to expect the average citizen to be familiar with these at-times complicated databases and the intricacies of Microsoft Excel -- as well as the distinctions within the campaign finance system. Even though the system is supposed to be transparent, piecing together a big picture of the power players is not for the faint of heart.
But if there’s one exciting aspect of this project besides mastering Excel's AutoSum feature, it’s how the available data are presented. The data's presentation was made possible through the work of Chase Davis of the Center for Investigative Reporting. (Full disclosure: Davis and I were at the University of Missouri-Columbia around the same time, and I have long admired his work.)
A similar content management system was used to track California's biggest contributors for California Watch. I wouldn't be surprised if this type of technology became more widespread.
Why? For one thing, the application plots every donation on a timeline. A user can also search through individual donations easily and, yes, export the data into Excel. Best of all, the infrastructure is in place to update and expand the donation pool for future election cycles.
In retrospect, the first line of this piece may be a misnomer. This project isn't the result of isolation. Rather, it's a collaboration among journalists eager to shine a light on the power players in the political system.