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How we identified the state’s top political donors

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The Rainmakers” isn’t the first attempt to identify powerful donors in California.

The California Fair Political Practices Commission put out a report in March 2010 that looked at 15 groups that spent at combined $1 billion on lobbying and campaign contributions in a decade. California’s secretary of state has its “major donors” list. Although there are many similarities in our numbers, there are also some differences.

We used data provided by the National Institute on Money in State Politics for our analysis and the interactive. The nonprofit organization collects state-level campaign finance data, verifies contributions, normalizes the data and provides some additional value, such as whether a candidate won or lost in the election. We downloaded the data in bulk from Influencer Explorer, a project from the Sunlight Foundation with a wealth of data on companies and people active in politics at the state and federal level.

Data from the secretary of state is notoriously inconsistent. Generally speaking, if organizations spell their names in different ways, it’s harder to group together those donations. (The major donors list is designed to combat this.) For example, a person could see that “The CA Teachers Assn.,” “California Teachers Association” and “CA Teachers Association” are all the same group, but a data analysis program won’t automatically. (There are some ways to work around this.) NIMSP’s data, by contrast, is designed to solve that very problem. Using NIMSP’s data provided several advantages:

  • Consistency of data. In addition to normalized names, the donations are coded by industry and company in some cases.

  • Candidate election results. Donations to candidates include election results if the candidate ran. This is immensely helpful. We would have had to add this information if we used the secretary of state’s data.

  • Ability to duplicate. One of our goals was to build a platform and a process that can be followed in other states. Rather than reinvent the data analysis process for every state, we now have a methodology that can be used to identify and profile top donors.

NIMSP’s data isn’t perfect, though. We performed our standard data integrity checks to find outliers, verify accuracy and make sure we hadn’t missed donations that would have pushed another donor onto the list.

There was one key element of the NIMSP data that we had overcome. The organization started off by collecting contributions only to candidates. In 2004, it began in earnest to collect contributions related to ballot measures. There is some data for the 2003 recall of Gov. Gray Davis, but it’s not as complete as other years. There was no data for any of the ballot measures in 2002. To overcome this, we filled in missing donations with data from the secretary of state’s website. We downloaded data from all committees connected to ballot measures in 2002.

The data does not include loans to committees, which in theory will be paid back to the donors by the political committees once they raise more money. In practice, that’s not always the case. Our analysis focused on donations, not loans or independent expenditures by candidates. Still, some of the top donors made significant loans to campaign committees that haven’t been paid back. In addition to the $49.5 million he gave in support of Proposition 87 in 2006, Stephen L. Bing loaned an additional $33 million. Haim Saban loaned $2 million to a group trying to repeal Proposition 11 in 2010. Those loans don’t appear in our interactive.

Committees supporting statewide propositions weren’t connected to the committees that received those donations. Whether voters approved the proposition wasn’t included either. We created those fields and updated the database using independent research and information from NIMSP. Our interactive database also includes negative donations. Such donations are refunds, when campaign committees refunded the donor for any number of reasons.

When looking at donations for our top groups, we tried to get to the smallest real entity. Although larger national groups might share interests with statewide or local chapters, the groups do not always advocate the same issues. The California Fair Political Practices Commission, for example, grouped together lobbying efforts and campaign contributions by the California Teachers Association and National Education Association. We didn’t. Although affiliated, the groups could endorse different candidates.

Similarly, we didn’t include donations from couples, unless the top donor also was listed on the donation. In cases in which both spouses made our list, such as Rob Reiner and Michele Singer Reiner, we grouped by whose name appeared first on the donation. We typically included donations only from individuals themselves, ignoring money from the top donors’ companies unless we could confidently connect the company’s donation to the individual.

Our analysis is conservative in its reach. Our chosen methodology leaves some donations out that would increase the total amount given by our top 100, but we wanted to show only the donations that we could definitively connect to those donors.

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