Individual contributions in US House elections - Smith for Congress

3 minute read

Campaign finance primer

In the United States, a candidate for federal office can accept donations to fund their campaign from many different sources such as individuals, political action committees, and political parties. There are limits placed on how much an individual, committee or party can contribute, and there are rules for how those contributions are disclosed to the public. These rules and limits and enforced by the Federal Election Commission.

According to the 2012 FEC Contributions Brochure, an individual is allowed to contribute up to $2,500 to a given candidate in the 2012 general election cycle. If an individual gives $200 or more to a campaign in a single cycle, the campaign is required to disclose the donor's name, address, occupation, and employer on a public donor list. If an individual gives less than $200, their personal information is not disclosed anywhere.

In FEC terminology, a donor who exceeds the $200 disclosure limit is called "itemized", but otherwise is considered "unitemized." A campaign discloses to the FEC, among other things, how much of their individual contributions came from unitemized donors and how much came from itemized donors.

The unitemized amount for congressional campaigns who raised at least $10,000.00 from individuals in 2010 represented on average 21% of their total individual contributions (n=1391,stddev=17%). Without the unitemized transactions we're missing 1/5th of the total contributions of most campaigns. Without the unitemized transactions, we cannot properly build models to analyze small dollar fund raising. Tech President has an excellent writeup on small donors in 2008 and some useful links to other small donor research.

New Data

Since I spend a lot of time digging through FEC reports, I wrote some software that sort of helps. While do some unrelated research I found that one campaign was disclosing transactions that they didn't need to disclose. Instead of only disclosing contributions above the $200-per-cycle aggregate amount, they were disclosing every single individual contribution.

As far as I can tell they are the only campaign to do so, ever, and this level of contributor data has never been made public. Big-time important congressional researchers like Fenno or Mayhew probably have access to data like this, and there may be some old stuff in ISPCR, but regular people like myself have never seen this. So I wrote some software to collect, clean, and verify the transactions and now I'm releasing it to the public.

Smith For Congress

I'm calling this data set Smith For Congress, it will live at the Smith for Congress homepage. The initial data set contains 3 election cycles (2006-2010) of individual transactional data, 49880 transactions in total. Transactions for less than $.10 were culled from the list, as were a handful of misclassified returned contributions.

The set contains five fields:

  • individual identifier
  • contribution amount
  • contribution date
  • cycle-to-date total contribution for this individual
  • election cycle

The individual identifier is consistent across cycles, and used in place of a name. It is generated by running the name and address of the contributor through a standardization process, and hashing the result.

With the full transaction data provided in this data set we can perform analysis on how much, and how often donors make contributions. This can lead to better models to build better metrics about campaigns and individual giving. These metrics can help us more fully understand how congressional campaigns raise money and the role of individuals in them.

What is not included

The name of the candidate filing the reports; Smith for Congress is a code name. I'm also not releasing individual names or addresses of contributors, as they are not important for the research goals I had for putting this set together. It is all there in the FEC documents, and it shouldn't take somebody more than 10 minutes if you feel like looking for either omission.


I believe the Smith for Congress campaign is a fair approximation for individual donations for a certain type of campaign, but this data is from one of thousands of congressional campaigns every cycle. Assumptions and models built from this data set may not hold true for other campaigns, but should help us as researchers better understand the dynamics of individual fundraising in congressional campaigns.

Over the coming weeks I'm going to be putting up short posts about different types of analysis that can be performed on these data. I will provide back links to the new posts here, but you should subscribe to the blog's RSS feed or follow me on twitter for updates.

Data can be downloaded here: Smith For Congress

Please do not hesitate to contact me at with comments or questions.