Campaign Consultants methodology

How we did it: anatomy of an investigation

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To measure the impact of political consultants in presidential and congressional campaigns, the Center for Public Integrity analyzed 2003-2004 expenditures of the organizations that spend money on political campaigns.

These organizations, termed “committees” by the Federal Election Commission, exist for House, Senate and presidential candidates, as well as for political party and “527” organizations. Because they fall under Internal Revenue Service regulations, 527 groups file contribution and expenditure reports with the IRS. The others file reports with the FEC.

House, presidential, and party reports are filed electronically; their data tables were downloaded from the FEC Web site. House candidates who expect to raise or spend less than $50,000 for the whole cycle can choose not to file electronically and those paper filings were not included in the database.

Senate campaign and Senate party committees file reports on paper, so the information from these reports was typed into the database by Secure Paper Solutions of Fredericksburg, Va., an outside vendor.

In the 2004 election cycle, 527 committees had the choice of filing on paper or electronically. These filings were included in the database.

The Center targeted House and Senate candidates from the two major parties who participated in the general election. However, one filing from an Independent candidate was included because he won the election.

All reports are from the 2003-2004 election cycle (Jan. 1, 2003 through Dec. 31, 2004), the latest full cycle for which records were available. From these reports, the Center compiled a database of campaign expenditures.

Center researchers then began the process of identifying expenditures for consultants.

This identification proceeded in two, interrelated steps:

  1. Standardizing names and their variations, as well as trivial address variations for the same recipient
  2. Identifying which recipients are consultants.

The Center did not examine every expenditure. Instead, researchers began by identifying the largest aggregated amounts for each recipient and examining those that received aggregated amounts of $50,000 or more. Researchers examined each expenditure in this first selection to determine if it was a consulting expenditure. If the recipient could be identified as an entity offering consulting services, then all expenditures involving that recipient were coded as consulting expenditures.

To determine which recipients should be coded as consultants for the purposes of this study, the Center coded a recipient as a political consultant if research showed that the recipient provides strategic or creative political services. Researchers excluded all employees on the committee payroll and recipients that supplied non-creative, non-strategic or politically neutral services (common examples were recipients who provided services to help get out campaign messages, such as Web hosting or the production of a mailing, but did not appear to have any influence on the content, placement or timing of the messages).

Researchers consulted many sources to support the coding decision, including the contents of the federal filings’ expenditure purpose fields, state business records, the recipients’ Web sites, business directories (such as Hoovers) and political trade publications.

Variations in punctuation, spelling, spacing and abbreviation are normal occurrences in data entry. Some recipient names had as many as 50 distinct variations in the data. As the coding proceeded, researchers used multiple techniques and made every effort to catch and fix these trivial, but sometimes elusive, variations in recipient names and to standardize them. Each time the standardized names were applied, smaller and smaller expenditures were coded. If the Center was unable to make sure that two variant names and/or addresses were the same, the recipients’ totals were kept separate.

Throughout the process, data and results were checked against other sources, including FEC election results data and Campaigns & Elections magazine’s 2004 “Winner and Losers” issue. These external checks sometimes led to identification of some recipients as consultants that Center researchers had not yet found.

The Center made an effort to assign a specialty to each recipient identified as a campaign consultant. The specialty was either taken from the Campaigns & Elections magazine issue or determined by additional research, which included examining the purpose of the transactions between the consultant and the committee as described by the committee in its filings. In some cases, a specialty couldn’t be determined for a consultant.

To get a more understandable picture of what the money was spent on, the Center created a category scheme for the expenditures with six categories: direct mail, fundraising, generic consulting, media, other and phones. The categories were applied by an automated procedure that looked at the purpose description field of the expenditure, checked an example table created by Center researchers, then applied a commonly used algorithm know as naïve-Bayesian classification. The results were evaluated by researchers, who tweaked the example table and ran the procedure again. Each iteration of this process produced better results. Itemization of a consultant’s commissions or profits is not required by the FEC. It should be noted that payments made to media consultants generally include funds that pass through that firm and are paid to television and radio stations for advertising airtime. Similarly, payments to direct mail firms may include the costs for postage.

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