About Campaign Finance

Campaign finance is an endlessly intricate subject. You might ask a seemingly simple question like: "how much money did Corporation X give to Candidate Y?" The answer is not as straightforward as you might imagine.

Very briefly: each candidate for federal office has an authorized committee. Individual citizens are limited in the amount they can give to individual candidates through an authorized committee; this limit is currently $2700 per election. Other political action committees, PACs, may fundraise and may donate to candidates’ committees. There are also limits to what PACs may say and may give. SuperPACs, or independent expenditure-only committees, may raise and spend unlimited funds on behalf of a candidate. However, they may not coordinate such spending with the candidate or the candidate’s official committee. Other groups of interest are leadership PACs, Carey committees, joint fundraising committees, 527s, and 501(c)s, all of which either collect, spend, or engage in electioneering on behalf of or in opposition to one or more candidates.

Committees and PACs are required to report their expenditures and receipts to the Federal Election Commission (FEC). 527s and 501(c)s are required to report to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS).

There is a long and venerable history of journalists reporting on fraud, theft, misuse of public funds, and plain quirkiness in the context of campaign finance. The Sunlight Foundation, the Center for Responsive Politics, the Center for Public Integrity, the New York Times, ProPublica, and many others have paved the way.

If you are interested in learning about the basics of campaign finance, the Center for Responsive Politics offers a number of excellent primers on what laypeople need to know. CRP generously shares their data; we use it as the basis for some of the analysis presented in Bailiwick. If you are interested in monitoring filings, the Sunlight Foundation has a tool called RealTime and another tool called Scout that will help you track filings in real time via text message or email. This is a useful complement to the Slack alerts available via Bailiwick. ProPublica's campaign finance API is another important tool that organizes filings into human-readable data and can be used to alert you to new filings.

Another helpful resource is the free e-book "Data and Democracy: How Political Data Science is Shaping the 2016 Election." We especially recommend the essay "How (and Why) to Follow the Money in Politics" by ProPublica's Derek Willis. Willis writes: "As a journalist, what interests me is how campaigns raise and spend their money, and in particular how the Internet is changing that. I try to find stories in the data, keeping in mind that the best stories involve people doing things—sometimes fascinating or unique, sometimes banal or criminal." This spirit of journalistic inquiry into campaign finance data is precisely what motivated us to build Bailiwick.