Expendicus - independent expenditure tracking for US House elections

2 minute read

Anyone can write a $250 campaign contribution check, but few can produce a $20,000 television commercial. When you or I donate money to a candidate’s congressional campaign, we become part of that candidate’s official contribution list, which is indexed and searchable on several websites (Political Base,OpenSecrets). A candidate may use your contribution to produce a television commercial – ending with “I am Candidate Smith and I approve this message” – and a typical campaign spends about 45% of its budget on mass communications ("Politics of Congressional Elections",Jacobson, p 90).

However, not all campaign commercials are produced by the candidates themselves. Political action committees (PACs) can offer several different kinds of financial and material support to a candidate, including producing communications in coordination with the candidate. Coordinated communications, in addition to other PAC support, are limited to a few thousand dollars per election cycle and appear as contributions on a candidate’s official contribution list. These communications are indexed and searchable in the same way as your $250 campaign check and come under the same level of scrutiny.

A PAC can also offer indirect support in the form of independent – as opposed to coordinated – communications. Unlike coordinated communications, independent communications are produced without the input or approval of the candidate and are subject to no fundraising limits. Despite the impact these communications may have on an election, independent expenditures never appear on either candidate’s official contribution lists.

For example, in the 2008 congressional election in Michigan’s Seventh District, the candidates’ contribution lists reported a combined total of $4.4 million spent during the election cycle. This leaves out independent communications totaling $3,818,360 – 55% of which was spent to support the election of the winning candidate. This imbalance was not unique to the Michigan Seventh. In 2008, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) spent over $80 million in independent communication costs in 66 races – and the Democrat won in 50 of these. Despite the heavy influence demonstrated by the DCCC, it’s very difficult – using current technology – to tally the impact of its independent expenditures.

Expendicus fills the void left by current technology, enabling researchers to investigate the impact of independent expenditures on congressional races. With Expendicus, users can view the independent expenditures made in a specific congressional race, in support of or opposition to an individual candidate, or commissioned by a particular PAC. The tool also searches YouTube and displays these independent communications, if they exist.

Expendicus was created as an entry into SunLight Labs’ Apps for America contest. The application can be accessed here, and source code is available at the Offensive Politics/Expendicus page on GitHub.