Many perspectives, 1 simple etiquette

3 Things to Watch As Campaign Finance Reports Surface

Created: 11 April, 2018
Updated: 21 November, 2022
4 min read

First quarter campaign finance reports are due. There a few things to keep in mind when deciphering what the numbers indicate about a candidate’s ability to win the vote.

1. Satellite Spending

'Satellite spending' is a term coined by Ballotpedia and it refers to “political spending not controlled by candidates or their campaigns; that is, any political expenditures made by groups or individuals that are not directly affiliated with a candidate” according to the website.

The online political encyclopedia, which is tasked with nonpartisan election and ballot reporting, backed away from the commonly used term 'dark money' and waved a white flag. Then it got together for a brainstorm. "One reason we came up with satellite spending is that ‘dark money’ has dominated this discussion and we felt there was definitely a connotation to the idea," Ballotpedia News Editor, Sarah Rosier told me.

An example of satellite spending is television ads purchased by organizations or even private companies to air during an election. They can advocate for a candidate, or negatively campaign against the candidate’s opponent, and it’s up to them. Look at the lists of spenders on negative and positive campaigning - it can indicate how important a particular race is to the broader party.

"‘Dark money’ -super PACs - came about because of regulations put in place," Rosier explains. She says the organization has to walk a very fine line.

"So instead of an individual identifying themselves with a $20,000 donation to candidate X, instead they identify themselves, donate the maximum allowed few thousand dollars and then take the remainder and sink it into an organization without identifying themselves - keeping us in the dark."

Also, look at the rankings of races with the most satellite spending here if you really want to see where the hotspots are located - you can get a clearer picture of where a party is headed and what seats it's terrified to lose. We are inundated with headlines screaming "Largest outside spending in history!"  The recent special election in Georgia's 6th Congressional District is a perfect example of this.

So as we head into the primaries and further afield to the general election, instead of looking at just the figures, look at which races rank at the top of satellite spending especially for the US Senate.

"A whole lot of money is concentrated in these battlegrounds. And especially getting into the general election I think what we'll see there will be a lot of money spent on those 'swing states' for the Senate, " Rosier points out. " I don't think we're going to have too many repeats of Georgia's 6th. Yes, there are going to be some highly targeted House races, but there's just not the funds at the satellite organizations to funnel all that money into House seats."

2. Check The Receipts

Sometimes the incumbent will tap into a really large 'war chest' of funds, held by their campaign committee, left over from their previous election. Keep in mind that most if not all incumbents keep their campaign committee the same throughout all their election campaigns and can tap into it for a new election cycle to keep themselves in office. This is an important point to look out for because it doesn't truly denote momentum behind the candidate for a current election. If an incumbent is in the doghouse but they have millions, it doesn’t mean it’s always going to keep them in the game.

So to get a better sense of momentum, rather than looking at total cash on hand, snoop through total contributions and receipts from the past quarter. Much can change in three months. You want to pay particular attention to this for a newbie candidate.

War chests are nifty for incumbents because they are not only running on name recognition and lots of cash, but their campaign committees can also transfer funds over to another candidate. But that's another story.

3. Personal Wealth and Loans

Rosier points out a common misconception about money in elections from the lay-voters standpoint. "For some of these candidates, people go, 'Oh my gosh that person has so much money, so many people must be excited about their campaign.' But a lot of times they are self-funding or loaning their campaign a whole bunch of money."

Piles of personal money sitting in the bank ready for injection into a candidate's own campaign means nothing if it can't substantially mobilize dependable support. So look at how much cash is coming from their personal accounts versus donations.

Another thing to take into account is t a candidate extending a personal loan or injecting cash into their campaign without a cap. They may have wealthy people interested in a campaign, but they can only give $5,000 directly, disregarding satellite spending. There currently does not exist and constraint against personal loans.

Note: Want to see how much America spends on campaigns and compare it to the things like fixing infrastructure and teacher salaries? Take a look at this.