The Campaign Finance Project: Researching the Contributors

Magazine cover with white text reading "North Carolina's bitterly contested 1984 US Senate race between Jesse Helms and Jim Hunt will easily go down in history as one of the meanest, ugliest, and most divisive campaigns ever. North Carolinians could not read a newspaper, watch TV, or open their mail without being bombarded by political rhetoric, mudslinging, and pleas for money."

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 13 No. 1, "The Jesse Helms Machine." Find more from that issue here.

Since May 1984, researchers at the Institute for Southern Studies’ Campaign Finance Project have spent hundreds of hours trying to identify occupations, verify addresses, and make sense of the contributions individuals gave to candidates in three statewide campaigns in North Carolina, including the Helms- Hunt race for the U.S. Senate. 

The fruits of this labor can be surprising. For example, after tracking down the economic interests of virtually every contributor of $500 or more in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, we discovered that one contender got an astonishing 30 percent of his money from people affiliated with nursing homes and chiropractors, two businesses operating in a maze of government regulation they wanted changed. It was a rich but thin vein of support, and the candidate lost to the man who tapped the deeper, broader revenue sources of the state’s leading banks, chambers of commerce, and manufacturers. We’ll be ready when the winner recommends legislation favoring some of his biggest financial backers. 

We now have computerized profiles of 3,000 campaign contributors. 

No study of this kind has been conducted before in North Carolina, and a similiar project exists in only one other Southern state — Florida. Three daily newspapers there have joined forces to computerize the state’s campaign disclosure reports and research the business affiliations of contributors. As a bill representing particular economic interests winds its way through the state legislature, the papers can now correlate contributions from these interests to the behavior of individual lawmakers. 

Although reports disclosing campaign finances are public documents, most people see their contents only — if at all — in microscopic print in those public-spirited newspapers which publish contributor lists following the state and federal election commission reporting deadlines. An accompanying story may summarize the candidate’s total contributions and expenses, make a few comparisons with previous years, and highlight the names of a few prominent business people and entertainers who donated money to so-and-so’s campaign. 

Without money, hundreds of research hours, and a computer, that’s about the best the public can expect because of the incomplete and chaotic rules governing disclosure of campaign contributions. Obstacles to researching the economic and political interests of individual givers include inconsistent reporting formats, a monstrous number of pages to cope with, inaccurate information on reports, inadequate enforcement of existing regulations, and the lack of a rule requiring candidates to supply occupational data on individuals. 

Some candidates turn in handwritten reports; others produce computerized print-outs. Lists of contributors may be in alphabetical order, or zip code order, or chronological order by date of contribution, or no order whatsoever. Under the “contribution” column, candidates are often required to list the amount given by each contributor on a specific date, as well as that person’s cumulative total. Too often, the cumulative total reflects an unstated period of time — is it a total for the year or for the entire campaign? And in many cases, numerous contributions from the same person are not added correctly to give the cumulative total. 

By far the greatest inconsistency we discovered occurs in the column marked “occupation.” In federal elections, such as the Helms-Hunt race, candidates are only required to “request” the individual to disclose his or her occupation and place of employment. In most cases, the column remains empty. And if filled in, it often gives vague answers like “executive,” “businessman,” or “housewife.” Like many states, North Carolina does not even require the candidate to ask for occupational data, so the amount of information the researcher begins with is minimal — a name and address. 

To determine the economic and political interests of individual campaign contributors, a squadron of volunteers, interns, and staff at the Institute’s Campaign Finance Project used the following sources available at various libraries:

1.     City directories (published by R.L. Polk & Co. or Hill Directory Co.); some cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas have another series called Contacts Influencial. Both sets of books list names with their employers, occupation, addresses and phone numbers. A section of the city directory also allows you to start with an address and identify the occupant, spouse, and occupation; this method is especially useful since many businessmen give donations in the names of their wives.

2.     Use the multi-volume Biography and Genealogy Master Index, produced in 1979, to identify quickly which of dozens of reference books monitored by the Index included data on your person.

3.     Annual business directories most useful to find corporate positions and board directorships are Standard & Poor's Register of Executives and Directors, Dun & Bradstreet’s Book of Corporate Management, and Million Dollar Directory. The first two include sections indexed by the executive’s name.

4.     Who’s Who directories exist for the U.S., regions, many vocations, and ethnic and racial groupings. They offer biographical, employment, political, and organizational data. Who’s Who in Finance and Industry is very useful.

5.     Checking specialized directories can be time consuming unless you have a hunch about a person’s occupation; for example, individuals listed as “Dr.” might be found in the American Medical Association Directory or the National Faculty Directory. Attorneys are listed in Martindale-Hubbell. See the Index (item 2. above) for a list of directories covering every field, from authors to zoologist.

6.     To find occupational information on less prominent contributors, ask a reference librarian, newspaper reporter or editor, or historical society in the person’s hometown for newsclip files on individuals or state biographical dictionaries. Also contact state and local chambers of commerce; they may provide directories of their members and refer you to useful guides, such as the roster of realtors and directories of companies and their management.

7.     Government sources vary widely from state to state. The secretary of state’s office might have a computerized index that can print out all the in-state corporate affiliations of a person, as in Florida, or simply a card file of incorporators of businesses. This office may also have two other useful lists: lobbyists and elected officials. Check with the state commerce department, too. County property tax records are public documents, available at the courthouse, and besides financial information, they may have a place on the form for the person’s occupation and/or employer.

8.     Political party officials, fundraisers, and candidates may help identify contributors; they may be more willing to share background on their opponent’s contributors. Reconfirm information they offer, however, because they often don’t know details about their own backers.

9.     As a last step — sometimes a costly one — call the contributors and, using a questionnaire, ask them why they give to political candidates, what issues are important to them in government, their occupation, etc. If you have a business phone number, you can call there, tell the secretary you want to send so-and-so a letter, and ask for his/her correct address and title or position with the company. 

This laborious routine to identify a contributor’s primary economic interests points up the inadequacy of campaign disclosure reporting requirements. But before Watergate, even less information was reported by politicians on the money they took in during a campaign. Following that “crisis of trust,” Congress changed federal campaign laws and nearly all states (except Alabama, South Carolina, Nevada, and Utah) enacted procedures that required periodic reporting before election day of the campaign’s expenses, income, and a list of all contributions above a certain level ($100 in North Carolina). 

Half of the states put limits on the amount of money one person could give directly to a candidate; nearly one-third provided some level of public financing of elections. Despite the outpouring of rules at the federal and state level, contributors have easily found ways to bypass laws limiting individual contributions by making donations in the names of other family members and/or by giving money to political action committees (PACs) which in turn fund the candidate. 

Reformers recommend a host of changes in campaign finance laws: abolish PACs or at least PACs affiliated with corporations; establish a residency rule, prohibiting a candidate from receiving out-of-state contributions; finance elections entirely with public money; put stricter requirements on disclosure of the contributor’s economic interests; regulate how money can be spent — for example, limit television advertising to five-minute candidate profiles and ban the 30-second spot ads that prove so effective in negative campaigns. 

Given the Supreme Court’s view of campaign contributions as a form of free speech and the reluctance of legislators to restrict their primary source of campaign income, it’s unlikely substantial reforms will soon come in the laws governing the disclosure or limiting of campaign financing. It could take another Watergate-type scandal to move another step forward. 

For background on campaign finance reform and research, read Elizabeth Drew’s Politics and Money: The New Road to Corruption (Macmillan, 1984) and Herbert Alexander’s Financing Politics: Money, Elections & Political Reform (CQ Press, 1984); and contact state affiliates or the national office of Common Cause, 2030 M Street, N.W., Washington, DC 20036; (202)833-1200.