CAMP 2018: Follow the Money to Cover Midterm Elections (and Well Beyond) Tip Sheet

By Shaya Tayefe Mohajer


Denise Roth Barber of the National Institute on Money in Politics
Sandra Fish, data journalist (@fishnette)

The lead

There is a fire-hose of information available out there when it comes to election money—dark money is called that for a reason but beyond that there is a lot of detail to glean from campaign finance reports and sites that have made that data searchable.

The Top Five

    • is a powerful tool that is too complex to teach in an hour-long workshop but if you’re following an issue, a person or a player in your state, can help—and they are often prepared to respond to reporter queries on deadline.
      • An example of their capabilities: You can take a look at various economic industries through analysis—so if you want to know how much the “Energy & Natural Resources” industry gave to one candidate, you can.
      • The “Show Contributions From” feature can also show you individual donors, broad economic industries or other parameters.
    • Dark money often funds attack ads, and depending on your state the transparency of where that money comes from varies widely. FollowTheMoney created a scorecard of states and how different states vary on what details they will disclose about dark money. It’s a good way to know how little you may know.
    • It’s two years from the 2020 Census and redistricting means election money will matter even more. The potential for gerrymandering is high and understanding how money plays into redistricting is important.
    • Prepare now for your accountability story later. What are the promises candidates have made out there on the campaign trail in recent weeks, and the weeks left leading up to the election? Make a list of those promises for any candidate and dig into the money. See who might be influencing those choices by looking at contributors. Start asking how those ideas are going to be paid for. Check in every month to see how those promises pan out.
      • Ask friends and family to hang on to campaign mailers for you—track the promises being made to different areas. Make a list and watch what promises are kept.
    • Lobbying also needs tracking: what kind of data will your state disclose? Super PACs redirect money from the campaign to the lobbyists once the campaign is over, so you’ll want to find out who they are paying and how much. Are gifts and meals disclosed? Do lobbyists have to disclose their pay? Do they disclose what bills they’re lobbying for? The tobacco industry and the NRA will spend a ton of money and they’ll wait until late in the election cycle (a month or two before) to make it tough to track. Many states don’t require tracking of lobbyists until there’s a specific bill that has been discussed. So lobbyists can just hang out with people who are powerful and if they just don’t mention the specific bill, a meeting or gift isn’t legally required to be reported.

The Surprise

Lobbyists can make $600,000 a year. They make a ton of money and they have a ton of influence. And that sum rarely gets accounted for as closely as the little sums that get reported on dinners or other small gifts.

The Resources

How to get the most out of Register with FollowTheMoney—once they verify that you’re a journalist they give expanded access. While it is not the best direct source for the most up-to-date information, they work hard to keep up with filings. For the most recent filings, you should go directly to the state and report it directly. FollowTheMoney is great for comparing past elections.

How to find out your state’s rules:

    • Scorecard: Essential Disclosure requirements page on Their map is loaded with details and grades on disclosure.
    • Campaign Finance Institute ( has great guides about what is allowed in your state.