A national campaign finance database that includes contribution data from all 50 states.

By Denise Roth Barber, National Institute on Money In State Politics

The National Institute on Money In State Politics (Institute) is the public's FEC for the states, compiling comprehensive donor information from all 50 state disclosure agencies, and forming that data into one unique database with  unparalleled access for journalists. Comparing political donations across state boundaries and election cycles provides powerful insights into how policy agendas are set, how donors court incumbents and winners to ensure they have a seat at the policy table, and even how legislation is shepherded through legislative committees.

Between budget cuts and layoffs, today’s working journalists are busier than ever with few opportunities to enhance their reporting skills. The data available on the Institute’s website, FollowTheMoney.org (FTM), is a free resource that fills a growing need among the diminishing ranks of statehouse reporters for high-quality information. The value of the Institute’s unique and rigorous work was honored with a 2015 MacArthur Award for Creative and Effective Institutions.

The highly credentialed national archive at FollowTheMoney.org includes details of contributions reported by the 15,000-plus state-level candidates, 200 political party committees, and 300 ballot measure committees that are active in state elections. Data is available for campaigns for federal office conducted since 2010. (See the range of data on the Institute’s home page.)

As the information is compiled, the Institute adds value to the data with standardization and industry coding, to make donor and spender names uniform and to simplify analyses. The resulting database of more than 8 million donor records covers every election cycle document and accounts for more than $6 billion raised.

No one else does this. No company, organization, or government agency has even attempted to duplicate the Institute’s collection of state-level political contributions, independent spending, and lobbying expenditure data.

To add further value to the massive amounts of data, the Institute regularly develops tools at FTM to search, select, analyze, and visualize the information, which helps put it into proper context for broader understanding. For example, the Institute’s My Legislature tool groups elected leaders by their legislative committee assignments and links each to legislation they sponsor. For example, if Company X helped draft a bill, My Legislature will show if Company X gave to the bill's sponsor, to the committee members debating the bill, to the legislative leaders, and to the legislature as a whole. By giving strategically to incumbent and winning candidates, Company X can ensure it has the ear of lawmakers at each important intersection in the public policy process. The My Legislature tool displays those correlations.

This past year, the Institute enhanced existing tools and created multiple new tools to illustrate where the interests of donors overlap with lawmakers’ positions of power. The Competitiveness Index, Similarity Index, Committee Analysis, and state and federal office-holder search functionality all answer questions about who is making laws in a state or in Congress, which committees they sit on, what legislation they sponsored and which committees considered that legislation, and who gave political donations to these decision-makers.

Institute researchers also conduct trainings for journalists, and assist journalists on a daily basis, handling requests for custom research and data, providing comments on developing campaign-finance issues, or guidance on the complex issues surrounding dark money, independent expenditures, and more.

Last year, 472 journalists ran 171,000 queries and retrieved 29 million records. Published journalistic investigations that cite Institute data are archived at In The News.

For example,  Institute researchers worked for weeks to provide the Center For Public Integrity (CPI) with data demonstrating how the pharmaceutical industry was engaging with state lawmakers, which was critical to CPI’s Politics of Pain investigation. The Institute also worked with CPI on an analysis that showed how, with Congress gridlocked, many industries were increasing their lobbying activities in the states.

Below are two testimonials from journalists who relied heavily on Institute data:

“The National Institute on Money in State Politics through its Follow the Money Website provides an indispensible tool for reporters and a service to our readers by simplifying the task of analyzing data showing the sources of politicians' campaign donations. It gives the American people facts they need to obtain detailed insight into how politicians may be more influenced by big money than by the public interest.” – Henry Goldman, Bloomberg News.

“The National Institute on Money in State Politics has been enormously beneficial to my reporting. The scope of the group’s data on state politics is unmatched, and we have drawn on the staff’s expertise to interpret and analyze that information. Their continued efforts at making influence easier to track is good news for anyone who believes in government transparency.” – ProPublica Campaign Finance Reporter Robert Faturechi

In addition to providing data, Institute researchers analyze the data and publish research findings at The Money Tale and Institute Reports. For example, the Institute recently examined the financial influence of the private prison industry on state politics in Prisons & Politics: Profiling the Pecuniary Political Persistence of Private Prisons.

About the author

Denise Roth Barber has served as managing director of the National Institute on Money In State Politics since 2010, after four years as research director and seven years as researcher. As managing director, she oversees the management of the data acquisition, research, information systems, and communications departments, and oversees the writing of grant proposals and narratives. Prior, Denise was a community organizer for six years with the Northern Plains Resource Council in eastern/central Montana, and was a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, Africa from 1987-1990.

For more information, please visit FollowTheMoney.org, and check out the Institute’s most recent 2017 Annual Report.