Political Money in 2012

by Paul D. Jorgensen

In our recent story for Alternet, Tom Ferguson, Jie Chen and myself wanted to refocus post-election coverage back onto campaign finance. Two troubling narratives emerged after the election: big money lost in 2012, and Obama’s groundswell of small donors beat Romney’s brazen billionaires.

Despite the best efforts of some to proclaim Citizens United a dud, money played an important role in the 2012 federal election, and a majority of Obama’s itemized money came from large donors, albeit less brazen. Our story covers the need to formulate alternative hypotheses about the 2012 election, with new numbers about Obama’s donors, but does not cover the intensive data efforts necessary to analyze donors.

Political analyses rarely answer one basic, descriptive question: how much did a donor give? The lack of analysis is not surprising given that both the Federal Election Commission (FEC) and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) do not give individual donors unique identification numbers; instead, public data only lists each transaction without any attempt to aggregate money by donor (not to mention the difficult design of the data, which is not intuitive). The data must be transformed and cleaned in order to make sense of who funds our elections.

The problems are well known: name misspellings and variations, donors giving from different locales, and uncomfortably high amounts of missing data. Even though the FEC has not updated the itemized list of Obama donors (his campaign filed electronically, seemingly making the disclosure process faster), we analyzed all pro-Obama donors up to October 17 (the most recent data available until the FEC updates its files). Our name-matching algorithms and settings are able to match donors who use a combination of nicknames, prefixes/suffixes, addresses, and have a misspellings. We also have rules to decipher when spouses give money using their husband or wife’s name.

Using these techniques, we find that 50% of itemized, pro-Obama money came from donors who gave at least $10,000, which is only 2.7% of pro-Obama itemized donors. These donors are hardly small.