Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Missing Pieces Distort Recall Money Picture

Sunday's Wisconsin State Journal featured a front-page story based on the newspaper's analysis of political fundraising in Wisconsin from the beginning of 2011 through late April of this year. After poring over close to $87 million in contributions to candidates and political committees that have been reported to state election authorities, the State Journal concluded that "despite rhetoric, the parties' mountains of money are about even."

There is a treasure trove of information in the story, and readers could surely learn a lot from reading it. But because of what was missing from the analysis, readers also could be left with substantial misconceptions.

The key point is that the newspaper's analysis was based on contributions reported to state election authorities. Looking at these disclosed donations, the partisan split is indeed remarkably even. What's missing from the picture, however, is contributions (of which there are a lot) to unregistered groups (of which there are many) that do not report their sources of income.

In last year's senate recall elections, there were 16 such groups that raised and spent close to $18 million. Over $15 million of that money went to support Republicans. That's not accounted for in the State Journal analysis because it does not show up on any campaign finance report. So far in the 2012 recalls, there are seven groups that are not registered and are not disclosing their donors. Six of the seven are Republican groups. Leading up to the May 8 primary, these groups collectively spent somewhere between $5 million and $8 million, almost all of it on the Republican side. Where they got the money is a mystery because they do not report their contributions to election authorities. So that money wasn't included in the newspaper's tally either.

The story mentions that about $50 million has been spent by interest groups sponsoring their own campaign advertising in the 2011 and 2012 recall elections, with the spending "fairly evenly split between the parties," citing me as the source of that information. It is true that about $50 million has been spent, and it is true that overall interest group spending this year and last has been fairly evenly split. But what the State Journal missed was the fact that close to half of that money was included in its analysis because the groups' donations were reported and the other half was not included because the groups did not disclose their income sources. It just so happens that most of the disclosed donations went to Democratic groups and most of the undisclosed money flowed to Republican organizations.

For example, the leading spender on the Democratic side in last summer's senate recalls was We Are Wisconsin, which reported spending more than $10.7 million. Its funding sources were reported, so the donations were included in the State Journal analysis. The leading spender on the Republican side was Club for Growth, which spent a fairly comparable amount. In fact, based on our analysis of TV ad buys, the group outspent We Are Wisconsin by 18% on television advertising. But Club for Growth does not report its election fundraising and spending, so its donations were not included in the newspaper's tally.

If such undisclosed interest group money were included in the recall money analysis, roughly a $20 million fundraising edge for the Republicans emerges because of a lopsided candidate fundraising advantage on the Republican side in 2012. Governor Scott Walker raised in excess of $25 million by the third week in April, which is over $20 million more than his Democratic opposition.

Overall, spending on last summer's senate recall elections was about $44 million. By our best estimates, Democrats outspent Republicans by nearly $3 million. In this year's recall election for governor, $40 million was spent before voters cast their ballots in the May 8 primary election. Governor Walker alone accounted for more than $20 million of that spending and Republican groups spent over $10 milllion. Add in fundraising in the four senate recall elections this year, where Republican incumbents have a significant edge, and again it is clear the Republicans have overcome the narrow lead Democrats opened in 2011 and this year have surged ahead in the recall money race by something on the order of about $20 million.


Jennifer said...

Thank you for clarifying. It's too bad that the State Journal won't print the correct, complete information on this, and if they did, some people still wouldn't take note.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for providing a more detailed look at the somewhat superficial reporting from the "media".

When I read the Sunday story, it didn't seem to ring true, even for the facts presented. There was indeed a great deal of contributions to the Republican recall side, mostly to Gov Walker. However, the attempt to show that the recall movement had parity due to union and other interest groups is rather simplistic.

Donations to these progressive / liberal / democratic groups can not be directly tied to a single issue such as the recall. They may be for the fall elections, or other purposes than recalling Walker. To assume there is only a single purpose for these donations is inaccurate; therefore the parity analysis falls apart.

I'd welcome any feedback or additional insight on this aspect of the money involved.