Friday, March 5, 2010

Following the money

I'm doing some research right now that involves heavily mining state campaign finance records in Colorado.  For the most part, I'm just using the Colorado Secretary of State's search engine.  It's not great -- the server is slow, the interface is awkward, candidates sometimes appear as people and other times as committees, etc.  But it's functional.

Some friends have pointed me to, the website of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.  This is a searchable database across all states over many years.  Every state has its own way of and schedule for collecting and reporting this information, so what the folks at NIMSP have done is truly amazing.

That said, there are inconsistencies.  I've looked up several Colorado statehouse candidates in both the Colorado and the NIMSP database and come up with different numbers.  For example, Linda Stahnke ran in the GOP primary in the 17th Colorado House district in 2004, losing to Mark Cloer.  The Colorado Secretary of State reports that she raised $30,186 for that contest; NIMSP claims she raised $35,218.  There are lots of small discrepancies like that.

I'm guessing the Colorado numbers are more likely to be correct, but I don't understand why these discrepancies exist.  Different ways of summing the numbers?  Errors?  Definitely something to think about before jumping into the data.


EdwinB said...


Glad to see such you're double-checking numbers. Too many researchers just take what's on the web as gospel.

As for the differences that you found in numbers posted by the Colorado Secretary of State and NIMSP, most likely they're things like "small donations", which are reported lump sum or refunds, interest and the like.

The Institute's data has been vetted by numerous academics, who found similar differences. The Institute's numbers are usually larger, which is an indication that we've included something that isn't in a state's on-line offerings. I might suggest that you download a copy of the C&E report filed by candidates in Colorado and look for the line items for contributions under the reporting threshold, which will be lump sums of small $5, $10, $20 donations. Then look for interest. Then look for loan repayments.

We look at these, and more, to ensure our totals balance with the ending balance reported by the candidates. (You will note, if you look long enough, some candidates who "donate" to themselves then pay themselves back from donations, which can drastically reduce the end balance, but not accurately reflect the money they had to spend at peak campaign season.

Please check the grids we post, which show the reports that we have compiled for each candidate.

If you have any questions about the Institute, our data or processes, please give me a call or drop a note. I'm always happy to explain any apparent inconsistencies.


Edwin Bender
Executive Director
406 449-2480

Seth said...

Thanks for the info, Edwin. This is very helpful.

Is it possible to look up 527s and independent expenditures on your database?