Sunlight Foundation

Follow the Unlimited Money - data details

The Sunlight Foundation provides reporters and members of the public with downloadable .csv files summarizing information from the Federal Elections Commission about how super PACs raised money, and how super PACs and other outside groups spent money.

Some caveats:

  • PACs are only required to disclose state spending during the primaries. General election spending is not apportioned by state, so the state-by-state totals do not reflect general election expenditures
  • In order to provide this information as quickly as possible, we're processing the raw reports as they are submitted to the FEC; no validation has taken place so it is possible there are errors.
  • "Hybrid" super PACs--committees that have separate accounts for limited and unlimited contributions--are not included. For a list of these committees, see here.

Bottom line: This information is being made available in real time, so we cannot guarantee its accuracy! If you have any concerns about information presented, please double-check it with files from the FEC.

Expenditures

Spending on these pages means "independent expenditures" disclosed on FEC Schedule E only--it does not include regular campaign expenses disclosed on schedule B. Our intent is to include all independent expenditures made during the 2011-12 campaign cycle. This kind of spending may be made by super PACS, regular PACs (including party committees), individuals, or corporate entities. It does not include everything listed under "disbursements" in the FEC reports, such as salaries, office rentals and equipment. According to the FEC:

"Independent expenditures represent spending by individual people, groups, political committees, corporations or unions expressly advocating the election or defeat of clearly identified federal candidates. These expenditures may not be made in concert or cooperation with or at the request or suggestion of a candidate, the candidate's campaign or a political party.

"Any time up to 20 days before an election, if these independent expenditures by a person or organization aggregate more than $10,000 in a race they must be reported to the Commission before the end of the second day after the communication is publicly distributed. If the communications are distributed within the last 19 days before the election, the expenditure must be reported within one day if they aggregate more than $1,000 in any race." See the FEC's independent expenditure page for more information.

Timing Regular committee filers are required to disclose independent expenditures in two ways--within 24 hours (if certain criteria are met) and then again in a monthly or quarterly report. The FEC allows committees to estimate their expenditures on the first form. In order to maintain the most accurate tally possible, we rely on data on the 24-hour notice forms only until a regular monthly report covering that time period is available.

Presidential super PAC spending is understood to mean the portion of independent expenditures used to expressly advocate a presidential candidate. A given PAC may split its independent expenditures between presidential and congressional races, so the presidential total may not reflect all, or even a sizable portion, of its overall spending.

Donations

Contributions only appear on this site if they've been reported to the FEC. While significant independent expenditures must be filed within 24-hours, contributions are only disclosed in a monthly or quarterly filing. (Some committees may also have to file pre-primary reports). In general, monthly reports are due the 20th of the following month, while quarterly reports are due the 15th.

Contributions come from a variety of sources. In the downloadable files provided, the first column, named "Donor Type" corresponds to the section of the FEC report they appear in: SA11AI lines are titled "Individual/Corporation"; SA11B are listed as "Political Party Committee" and SA11C is "Political Action Committee".

We consider "Offsets To Operating Expenditures" (line 15 on Form F3X) as if it were a contribution. While the FEC doesn't count this money as a contribution (in that it it's excluded from line 11D), in practice it is being used by organizations to fund substantial parts of their operation. This kind of receipt is listed as 'Offsets To Operating Expenditure (line 15)' in the 'donor type' field of the downloadable .csv files. For this reason our contribution totals might be slightly higher than those produced elsewhere.

Political Orientation

In a year when many new organizations, many with vague names that reveal little about their purpose or political leanings, are playing in the political money game, it's become difficult to keep determine which side is ahead. So Sunlight has taken a stab at characterizing these groups by their political leanings. (The results are available in the "political orientation" column in our downloadable .csv file summarizing super PACs financials). We did this through a number of steps. From easiest to hardest:

  • The easiest groups to categorize were those that showed up on Sunlight's Follow the Unlimited Money, making independent expenditures exclusively to candidates of one party, like American Sunrise and Make Us Great Again, Inc., or in support of one party and in opposition to the other.
  • During the primary season, many super PACs found themselves spending to support and oppose different candidates from the same party. Some Republican groups even made expenditures to support Republicans, oppose Democrats, and oppose Republicans. Still, any group spending to support one party, without supporting the other, was identified with the party whose candidates it backed. 
  • Other super PACs were more difficult to pigeonhole. Many made independent expenditures to oppose candidates but made no supportive expenditures. Some of these cases were resolved by visiting the official websites. Restore America's Voice PAC has a clear "Obama Must Go" banner on its homepage. RethinkPAC.org redirects to Rethink Brown, dedicated to opposing Republican Senator Scott Brown. When the official site wasn't helpful, or didn't exist, Google sometimes pointed to a helpful news article or other source explaining a super PAC's origin. 
  • If we were still stumped, we used Influence Explorer to check out past campaign contributions from super PACs' individual donors, indicating whether they have a record of giving to Republicans or Democrats. 

Even after all these steps, some groups still didn't fall clearly into one camp. For example, End the Gridlock, a Washington-based super PAC, has made no expenditures, has no official website, and received contributions from various individuals who give both Republicans and Democrats. If you have information that can help us categorize these super PACs, please contact us.  

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