2014 The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism, Small/Medium Newsroom finalist

Puppet States: Where the Money Went


About the Project

While the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision to deregulate campaign finance laws has been well noted in federal elections, the effect it’s had on state level elections has been virtually ignored.

In our year-long project, “Puppet States: Where the Money Went,” the Center for Public Integrity systematically examined the new radical reordering of campaign finance in 2012 state level elections to assess the impact of Citizens United.

The core story was a unique analysis of all 2012 outside spending targeting candidates, accompanied by a sophisticated data visualization. The Center collected and analyzed nearly $209 million in outside spending from the 38 states where data was available.

To show that 40 percent of 2012 state-level political spending by outside groups came from just a handful of national players, we created a map of the states with national groups hovering above it. Streams of funding, colored by political association, touch down like so many tornadoes of outside cash. Users can roll over to see which state got how much from where, and click a state or group for a cleanly rendered profile with more detail. The map remains to promote a sense of continuity, but zooms in on the selected state, and is colored shades of orange by relative activity to give users a sense of comparison. Each state has an individual URL for convenient shareability.

Obtaining reliable data was enormously challenging, as was analyzing the data we did collect. Each state has its own rules when it comes to how non-party, non-candidate special interest groups report their spending. We worked closely with the National Institute on Money in State Politics, a nonprofit that collect state-level campaign finance data, but their records were really just a starting point. We spent a tremendous amount of time checking the data against state records and collecting data from states not available from the Institute.

But, collection of data was just half the battle. Because some states rules are stricter than others, doing state-to-state comparisons would have been unfair and inaccurate. For example, Michigan reports paltry spending by state-level nonprofits and super PACs, not because groups aren’t active, but because the state’s law doesn’t require robust reporting. The answer for analysis was to look at the organizations themselves to determine the origin of the bulk of this outside money pumped into state races in 2012. This approach revealed the enormous impact out-of-state groups had on local elections.

While much early federal coverage of post-Citizens United outside spending highlighted greater spending by pro-Republican groups, the Center’s analysis of donors to state outside spending groups showed that a pro-Democratic coalition led by labor union actually outspent their pro-Republican counterparts at the state level in 2012.

Our story highlighted the millions of dollars pocketed by the political consultants who organized these outside campaigns. Some critics concluded that their activities were actually beginning to shape what kind of candidates sought local office, and made some candidates more responsive to out-of-state groups than their own constituents.

The greatest outside spending occurred in gubernatorial races and with 36 governors up for election in 2014 the investigation served as a preview of what is on the horizon.

The initial story in the series took measure of state disclosure laws, the vast majority of which were found to be less comprehensive than the much maligned federal rules. The Center provided visualization of disclosure grades created by the National Institute for Money in State Politics. Only 15 states were equal to or better than the federal government, and 26 received failing grades.

The story was referenced by local media around the country, often with editorials calling for state lawmakers to enhance campaign finance disclosure laws in response to the post-Citizens United landscape.

The second story in the series examined outside spending in 10 state supreme court elections, where the Center found that big businesses were playing an outsized, yet under-the-radar role in helping Republican judges win elections. This story, co-published with McClatchy’s newspapers, was also referenced by local news outlets across the country, again with calls for reforms to how judicial elections are conducted.

The findings showed that outside groups played a significant role in helping elect governors, state legislators, attorneys general and other state office holders—often with little disclosure of who was funding these independent campaigns. In New Hampshire, the focal point of the story, the Center found that outside spending actually exceeded candidate spending.