Monday, October 8, 2012

Election 2012: A peek inside our campaign toolbox

Posted By on Mon, Oct 8, 2012 at 11:00 AM

We've been blanketing Montana's Senate race with coverage for several months now for one very good reason: Money. If you caught this week's feature on outside influence in modern elections, you're fully aware that, in the wake of Citizens United, money is more powerful than ever. Montana is currently leading the country in the number of Senate race ads aired; in the last three weeks of September alone, campaigns, political parties and outside groups launched 19,047 new television ads in the state. That's money at work.

A screenshot from a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ad attacking Rehberg.
  • A screenshot from a Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee ad attacking Denny Rehberg.

But how do we here at the Indy track the what, the where, the who and the why? It can be tricky, even frustrating, especially when much of the millions spent by third parties in this race comes from groups who don't disclose their donors or expenditures. We thought we'd share some of the tools that make our job easier—tools you can use to make yourself a more informed voter—by dissecting a few recent stories.

For example, several weeks ago we wrote about America Is Not Stupid, a conservative 501(c)(4) backed by the Florida-based Fenwick Group that's launched ads opposing Sen. Jon Tester's re-election. The nonprofit first caught our attention when a list of their independent expenditures popped up on the Sunlight Foundation's Follow the Unlimited Money, a running list of independent expenditures by outside groups updated daily from FEC reports. We took America Is Not Stupid over to the Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets website and found that Montana is the only state the group has targeted this year. America Is Not Stupid wasn't active in any electoral cycles prior to 2012, and the group doesn't disclose its donors. America Is Not Stupid has spent $52,080 attacking Tester so far.

This week, we wrote about Tester challenger Denny Rehberg's campaign contributions from the Sacramento-based Westlands Water District. The group's present and past campaign donations to Montana candidates came up in a quick search on Sunlight's Influence Explorer website. OpenSecrets revealed the group's ties to the lobbying firm Gage LLC, and subsequently revealed the tie between former Sen. Conrad Burns and that same lobbying firm.

As mentioned in this week's feature, the Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, has developed a host of useful websites aimed at bringing more transparency to the campaign finance world. Influence Explorer allows voters to sift through Federal Election Commission filing information simply by searching for specific donors, candidates, states, industries, etc. Want to know who's donated big to the Jewish Council for Education and Research, which paid for the viral pro-Obama ad "Wake the Fuck Up" featuring actor Samuel L. Jackson? Well, the groups biggest donation—$200,000—came from none other than Alexander Soros, the son of millionaire philanthropist and liberal mega-donor George Soros. Search his name and you find tens of thousands in additional contributions to various Democratic groups and candidates nationwide.

Sunlight also operates Political Partytime, a searchable database of political event invites that enables you to peek behind the curtain of campaign fundraising. The Partytime website helped us link Tester to a high-price fundraiser at the California home of Sen. Dianne Feinstein earlier this year, and Rehberg to an event at the National Republican Senatorial Committee headquarters in D.C. last month. Partytime also tipped us off to Republican congressional candidate Steve Daines' appearance at the Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky. Sunlight's even rolled out a smartphone app that sheds light on those relentless political ads. AdHawk monitors the audio from an ad as it airs and offers whatever information about the ad is publicly available—who paid for it, how much they paid, where it's airing, etc. We wouldn't recommend trying to use it in a loud bar, but it's definitely come in handy.

This list is just scratching the surface, of course. But you don't have to be a reporter on deadline to put these sites to use. Want to be more informed before you hit the polls next month? Get to it.

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