Five Best Tools for Following the Money

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“Data” is the buzzword of the 2012 election. Making sense of campaign finance data is crucial to understanding what will happen in the coming weeks and months, as well as the underlying forces that influence those events. But you don’t have to be a journalist — or have a computer science degree — to dig in. Below are five tools that enable anyone to learn about the money fueling this election.

New York Times logoA Guide to Political Donations
If you’re not a multimillionaire, you might be unfamiliar with all the rules regarding political donations. The New York Times created this helpful interactive tool that illustrates options for citizens and corporations wishing to donate as little as $25 or as much as $10 million.

Open Secrets logoSuper PAC Tallies
OpenSecrets.org, from the Center for Responsive Politics,  is a great source for super PAC data. The site updates on a daily basis. As of today, there are 597 registered super political action committees that have reported receipts of $221,019,352. They’re “super” because there are no restrictions on how much a person or corporation can donate. However, super PACs are required to report all contributions on a quarterly basis. OpenSecrets has crunched all the filings into this user-friendly spreadsheet. Which PAC has raised the most money so far? Restore Our Future at $56,512,634.

Sunlight Foundation logoFollow the Unlimited Money
This tool, produced by The Sunlight Foundation, allows you to see where all that money is being spent, and whether it is being directed in a positive or negative way. For example, Restore Our Future spent 85 percent of the $46,540,814.97 it has outlayed since the beginning of 2011 in ads critical of other candidates. The Sunlight Foundation processes the raw reports as they are submitted to the Federal Elections Commission. They even include copies of the original PDFs you can review yourself.

New York Times logoThe 2012 Money Race: Compare the Candidates
Produced by The New York Times, this interactive tool, enables you to see how much money the candidates’ campaigns have received, how much cash they have on hand and how they compare to one another. At the end of March, President Obama’s campaign had over 10 times the amount of money on hand as Governor Romney’s campaign. Color-coded maps show that President Obama does particularly well raising money on the coasts, and both candidates doing well in urban areas.

Maplight: Revealing Money’s Influence on Politics
Money flows into Washington every day, some of it directed towards the passage or stoppage of legislation or other Congressional activity. Maplight’s easy-to-use search engine lets you see who’s spent what in support or opposition to specific legislation. For example, spending against the Senate DISCLOSE Act has heated up in the past few weeks. Opponents have outspent supporters of the bill by a 3 to 1 margin: $74.5 to $24 million. The list of those contributors includes groups one might expect, such as the U.S. Chamber of Congress and the Heritage Foundation, but also includes groups that are surprising (the ACLU) and somewhat baffling (Society of American Florists, American Bakers Association).

Tips for Tracking Dark Money
Unlike super PACs, tax-exempt nonprofits like Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS or Americans for Prosperity don’t have to reveal their donors. These “social welfare” organizations are not considered PACs, so disclosure rules don’t apply to them. But that doesn’t mean journalists are just leaving them be. For continuous news and insight, we recommend following these reporters and watchdog organizations on Twitter: @MotherJones, @AndrewKroll, @iWatch, @FredWertheimer and @sunfoundation.

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