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Running a campaign can get very expensive. It costs money to run all those ads and send all those texts and phone calls. But where does that money come from? This week we're talking about how to find out where candidates get their money and why it's an important thing to keep an eye on.

THIS IS A RE-UPLOAD. In the original video we referred to "Political Action Coalitions" rather than "Political Action Committees"


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MediaWise is a nonprofit, nonpartisan project of the Poynter Institute and supported by Facebook. Complexly is an MVP partner, as are Campus Vote Project and Students Learn, Students Vote.
Running for office can be pretty expensive.

All those tv and social media ads, consultants, yard signs, tour buses, and field organizers who show up at your door with clipboards add up fast. I mean, the average Senate campaign in 2018 cost nearly 9 Million dollars.

Nine Million Dollars! And there are 100 of those seats to fill! A senate term is 6 years long, so that’s nearly a billion dollars spent every 6 years on just one part of one branch of our federal government— sounds like money is a pretty major ingredient of how our government gets put together.

So where is all that money coming from? I know I don’t have 9 Million dollars to give away. A girl can only dream.

Today we’re going to talk about why the money in our elections matters, who it comes from, where they’re spending it, and what it means for how our elected officials do their jobs. I’m Evelyn from the internets, and this is the MediaWise Voter Guide. [Theme Music]. There are lots of reasons that someone might donate to a political campaign.

Maybe you believe in Senator Evelyn’s mission, (thanks for the promotion by the way) or her speeches inspire you. Maybe you really don’t like what her opponent stands for and want to make it harder for that opponent to win. Or maybe you know that she’s going to have a chance to make laws that affect your family, or your business, and you want her to think about you when she makes those laws.

On the other side of that equation, Senator Evelyn has an election coming up in another 6 years, which means she has to raise another 9 Million or so dollars, and she’s probably going to go back to the people who donated in her first election and ask if they’ll give money again. If she helped pass a law that those funders didn’t like, well, maybe it will be harder for her to come up with the money she needs to keep her job. So when it’s time for her to vote, she might keep those donors’ interests in mind.

But the whole point of a representative democracy is to make sure politicians also have your interests in mind, right? So you deserve to know who else might be taking up a chunk of your Senator's brainspace. Seems like someone should be keeping an eye on that, right?

Enter the FEC. The Federal Election Commission, or FEC, is a government agency created by Congress to make rules about how elections are funded. They set limits on who can give to candidates, and how much those donors can give.

The FEC also requires that campaigns keep records of where money was raised and spent, and make those records public, so you and I can feel confident that our elections are being run with integrity, or call it out if they’re not. So let’s talk about those FEC rules and the different types of funders a campaign or politician may have.

First, there are individual donors. If you’ve ever gone online and given $20 to a candidate after watching a debate or going to a campaign rally, this includes you. Individual donors are limited to giving no more than $2,800 per election which is a big chunk of change for Internet Evelyn, but a small portion of what Senator Evelyn needs to raise overall.

So candidates often turn to another type of funder, party committees. These committees, like the DNC and RNC represent the party itself. Each committee can spend $5,000 per candidate, but there are lots of levels of committees a candidate can go to.

Both parties have national committees, senate, congressional, and state legislative committees, and state and local parties that might all be able to toss in 5 Gs. The next category is Political Action Coalitions, or PACS, which are “committees organized for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates.” This could be anything from a group of neighbors that want to fundraise together for their local school board race, to interest groups, like an organization that works on climate change and wants to fund candidates with strong climate policy, to a group of oil company executives who want to fund...the opposite of that. PACs can spend $2800 per race if they were formed to support a single candidate, or $5,000 per candidate if they were formed to support multiple candidates.

And then there are independent expenditure-only committees, which are sometimes called Super PACs, those things you’ve heard about all over the social media sphere, but what actually makes them Super PACs? Well, on one hand they’re not allowed to coordinate with candidates, so they’re not allowed to talk to each other about what ads to run or what voters to reach out to, or what yard signs to print. Nothing.

But on the other hand, Super PACs can spend unlimited funds in an election. Elections are super expensive, and they can write super big checks. If you feel like that’s...super mysterious and confusing, you’re not really wrong.

That’s why the FEC requires candidates to report where they get their money from. There are also nonpartisan watchdog groups that exist to make it easy for you, as a voter, to know who might be influencing the candidates you vote for. My favorite is the Center for Responsive Politics tracking tool:

So let’s go find out what some PACs are up to. At we can look up any interest group and see where their money is going. As long as we’re on the theme of funding transparency, let’s start with the funders of this video, Facebook.

You’ll notice that corporations like Facebook weren't part of our list of campaign funders. While corporations themselves can’t donate directly to candidates, they can form PACs, and those PACs can spend as much as they want. Facebook Inc. has a PAC.

So what does that PAC spend money on? Well, Facebook has lobbied Congress on issues from net neutrality to STEM education, to data privacy and more, because these are the issues that matter to this company. When bills come up in Congress about those issues, Facebook may want politicians in office who will vote in ways that help them run their business.

So Facebook might use their PAC to fund candidates who they think will vote in favor of Net Neutrality the next time Facebook heads to Washington to lobby for it. On Open Secrets, you can see a breakdown of how much money Facebook has spent in the 2020 election cycle—. A little over 300 thousand from Facebook’s PAC, and about 1.7 million from individuals who work at Facebook.

Again, while corporations can’t donate to candidates directly, their employees can donate as individuals. Remember when we talked about regular folks like you hopping on Evelyn for senate dot com after Senator Evelyn gives a fire speech at your local political rally? After you put in your credit card number and billing address, those forms will also ask you for the name of your employer, because yep, the FEC makes campaigns track that too.

That’s because a company is made up of people, and even if Facebook’s PAC doesn’t donate money to a candidate, if every single one of their employees does, then the people who make up Facebook can still shape a candidate’s priorities once they get elected. Now that we’ve looked at how much Facebook is spending, let’s see who they’re spending it on. Their individual employees tend to donate mostly to Democrats, but not exclusively.

But their corporate PAC gave equal amounts of money to both the Democratic and Republican party’s Senate committees. Facebook’s PAC also spends most of their money on incumbents, or elected officials who already hold office, and are running for reelection. This matters because incumbents can vote on legislation that’s happening now, not just in the future.

That donation isn’t just saying “hey Senator Evelyn, remember me when you get elected” it can also be a way of saying “hey Senator Evelyn, there’s a Net Neutrality bill headed your way this week, so think of me and my donations then.” As we scroll down the page, we can follow the money all the way down to the individual candidates that Facebook’s PAC and employees gave their money to, in order of who received the most money to the least. These are the candidates who may be influenced by donations from Facebook when they vote on bills that impact Facebook. But they’re not the only interest group with a say.

As we just saw, all of Facebook Inc has spent about 2 Million dollars so far in 2020. That’s not even a quarter of an average Senate race. So let’s look at this from the other side, and look up a candidate to figure out who else wants some influence.

There’s a long list here, but let’s click on Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, who represents. California’s 18th congressional district, where Facebook is headquartered. She’s raised over $1.5 Million from donors this election cycle, and over $27,000 of that came from Facebook employees and it’s PAC.

But in addition to the tech industry, we can see that Congresswoman Eshoo also receives a lot of contributions from the healthcare and pharmaceutical industries. Her largest donor, the medical lab Ascend Clinical, is also headquartered in her district. So Congresswoman Eshoo would want to look out for her constituents, but those industries also might want to influence how the Congresswoman votes on things like public healthcare options.

You can check out our episode on research to learn more about how to find a candidate’s voting record, and look at their votes side by side with their funders. Are there any bills those funders lobbied Congress around? And did the candidate vote in their favor?

And it’s not always a clear cut answer either—Does a lawmaker vote in ways that favor a funder’s values because they donate? Or do the funders donate to that lawmaker because they have a history of voting in ways that represent their values? It’s hard to say, but it’s good information to have, even if you can’t draw a direct line from a donation to a bill.

Once you find out if a candidate is more likely to vote in the interests of Facebook, it’s up to you to decide if that also means they’ll vote in the interest of you. Maybe net neutrality could be great for your ability to access online content, but looser data privacy laws could give social media platforms more control over your personal information than you want them to have. All that information gives you another tool in your toolkit as you research candidates to decide who will best represent your values in office.

Because while money does matter, it’s important to remember that the candidate who raises the most money is not always the same as the candidate who wins. Just take the Democratic primaries, where the candidate who spent the most money, Michael. Bloomberg, also had one of the shortest lived campaigns.

Even a billionaire has the same number of votes to cast as you—which means your vote is the most powerful tool you have. The MediaWise Voter Project is led by The Poynter Institute – that's a journalism teaching non-profit. Complexly, the creator of this video, is a partner on MVP.

And so are Campus Vote Project and another cool coalition organization called Students Learn, Students Vote. The MediaWise Voter Project is supported by Facebook.