Tuesday, February 15, 2022

Follow the Money: How Campaign Finance Disclosure Can Help Us Be Better Citizens

By Christopher Cooper

Four times a year, people running for office file paperwork detailing how much campaign money they took in, where it came from, and how they spent it. You don’t need to file a FOIA request and you don’t need any special access or a secret decoder ring to get the information--simply the ability to navigate a web browser here and here and commence to sleuthing. I wish we had better disclosure laws and the data aren’t perfect, but what is available can help you better understand who's running for office, who they depend on, and what their spending says about them.


Understanding the Network


When academics read books, they often begin not with the first pages of Chapter 1, but with the acknowledgements and the works cited. Learning about who people thank and who they cite gives a sense of the foundation they are building upon—it tells you where they are positioned in the network of knowledge and ideas.


Learning who gives money to candidates can give you similar signals about a candidate’s political network. Do they have strength in a certain geographic area? Do their supporters tend to come from a particular wing of the party? Are they garnering support from the power brokers in the party? In the region? In certain industries?


For example, in North Carolina’s 14th congressional district where I live[1], simply scrolling through donations reveals that Republican Chuck Edwards has received donations from a number of prominent figures in the region including Jack Cecil (the great-great grandson of George Vanderbilt and President of Biltmore Farms), and former member of the General Assembly Chuck McGrady. On the Democratic side, you can learn that Democrat Eric Gash has the support of the last Democrat to represent the district in Congress, Heath Shuler, while Jasmine Beach Ferrara has considerable support in her current home of Buncombe County and her childhood home of Chapel Hill.


The Power of Personal Wealth


Perusing campaign finance data can also let you see who is self-financing their campaign, versus who has support from the voters. Returning again to the 14th, Republican candidate Bruce O’Connell shows a whopping $1,043,484.25 in receipts, $1,000,000 of which came from a personal loan to his campaign--pretty good information to have as a voter trying to learn about the candidates and their backgrounds. Not surprisingly, research shows that people who self-fund their campaigns are more likely to be wealthier, run in more competitive districts, and are more likely to hail from the Republican Party.


The Small Number of People Involved


For all the conversations about how much money there is in politics, there are surprisingly few people who actually write checks (or click buttons) to donate. For example, 14th congressional district Republican Chuck Edwards shows a healthy $851,000 in campaign receipts spread across more than 5 dozen donations. Even if all of those donors live in the district (which they don’t), and no one gave more than once (many did), that means that less than 1/100th of 1% of the district has donated to the leading Republican candidate in a Republican-leaning district.  The simple fact is that most people are not tuned into politics--particularly at this stage of the election cycle, and very, very few people donate money to campaigns. [2] This divide--between those interested in politics and those who couldn't care less--may even be a bigger divide than the gulf that exists between the two major parties.

How They Spend Their Money


There are, of course, lots of insights hidden away in campaign receipts, but expenditures can also tell us a great deal. You can learn who’s staffing each campaign (and how much they're paid), whether they buy supplies in our out of the district, and whether they buy taxidermy with their campaign dollars. You can also see emerging trends in American politics. For example, by examining Democrat Jasmine Beach-Ferrara’s disclosures, we see that she has spent $1,500 of campaign money on child-care—something that has only been allowable federally since 2018 and allowable in NC since 2020. Although the research is still developing, the idea is that allowing childcare expenditures can open up the types of people who run for office, and make it possible for people with families to take legitimate expenditures (in short: it's a good thing).


Examining expenditures can also reveal how quickly candidates spend what they take in—what campaign professionals sometimes call a candidate’s “burn rate.” Here, Madison Cawthorn is instructive. Cawthorn shows an eye popping $2.8 Million in receipts, but he has also spent about $2.7 Million—a burn rate so extraordinary that it could likely get someone to Pluto in less time than it takes me to get to Pinehurst.

Does it Make a Difference?


You may be wondering if all of this can make any difference—if knowing, as GI Joe once said, is half the battle. There is some empirical evidence suggesting that GI Joe might have been onto something. Political Scientist Abby Wood finds that when people have more information about where candidates get their campaign dollars, they reward and blame candidates accordingly. Wood’s work with Christian Grose finds that when candidate’s campaign finance misdeeds are revealed, the candidates perform worse in future elections.


Our democratic system of government is based on the idea that we monitor our elected officials and reward the behavior we like (through votes) and punish the behavior we don’t (by withholding votes or voting for someone else). I can think of few more useful tools in the toolbox of democratic citizenship than those that allow us to follow the money.



Chris Cooper is the Madison Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Public Affairs at Western Carolina University. He tweets at @chriscooperwcu 

[1] OK, I actually live in the 11th. But in the new lines, it will be called the 14th. But those lines were thrown out by the courts. By the end of the week, maybe I’ll live in the 1st. Who knows anymore?  

[2] Political Scientist Thomas Wood (who maintains a terrific Twitter account of political graphs) demonstrated that Americans spend more money per year on glassware than they do on presidential, Senate, and House candidates, parties, and independent groups.