The $7 Billion Campaign? Understanding Campaign Finance Estimates

As election cycles end, campaign finance summaries are of interest in Congress, among researchers, and for the media, but figures can vary substantially by source, time period, and content. Even basic terminology often is inconsistent. This CRS "Insight" provides brief background information for congressional readers who are interpreting campaign finance summary data.

Recent Examples

Campaign finance estimates vary substantially and range from broad overviews to specific snapshots. Understanding the differences, and potential advantages and disadvantages of various approaches, requires examining which data are included and how they are analyzed. In one of the most recent and overarching analyses, the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP) estimates that total spending on 2016 federal campaigns will reach almost $7 billion. The $6.9 billion CRP estimate is slightly more than the inflation-adjusted $6.6 billion that the campaign finance research and advocacy group reported for 2012. Narrower recent examples include Federal Election Commission data showing $814.8 million in House-campaign spending and $498.2 million in Senate-campaign spending filed in pre-election reports; a Campaign Finance Institute analysis finding $532 million in total "independent spending" in Senate general-election races; and another that examines independent spending compared with candidate receipts in competitive congressional races.

No Single "Official" Figure or Set Terminology

Why isn't there a single, clear figure that accounts for all activity affecting federal elections? Not all activity that might affect elections is included in what is commonly regarded as "campaign finance" data. Furthermore, several different concepts established in law all contribute to overall spending, but are not necessarily reported in the same way or at the same time.

As CRS has noted, under the Supreme Court's 1976 Buckley v. Valeo decision, distinctions between express advocacy that explicitly calls for election or defeat of candidates, and issue advocacy that conveys policy messages (but might influence elections), distinguish different types of political speech affected primarily by different aspects of law. Also as CRS has noted, distinctions between different kinds of political organizations, contributions and expenditures, and between relevant reporting requirements in campaign finance law and tax law, all affect available data.

In addition, as a practical matter, the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA; 52 U.S.C. § 30101 et seq.) does not require the FEC to produce an all-encompassing figure that includes all fundraising or spending. The agency has provided informal "big picture" estimates in the past but has not done so recently. Currently, the commission produces detailed financial summaries of particular kinds of activity, such as fundraising or spending in presidential or congressional races, or independent expenditures, that reflect major concepts established in FECA.

Interpreting Different Estimates

In the absence of an "official" figure, secondary sources, such as media organizations, researchers, or interest groups, employ various methodologies and language to summarize campaign finances. Almost all secondary sources, including the data cited above and aggregators such as ProPublica's Election DataBot, rely on FEC data for their analyses. (Political advertising studies, such as the Wesleyan Media Project's, sometimes rely on subscription commercial data.) FEC data come from disclosure reports filed with the agency.

FEC summaries are explicit about which categories of fundraising and spending are included in their analyses. The labels the commission uses comport with terms in regulation and law. By contrast, secondary sources—especially media accounts—often use terms that are popular shorthand but do not necessarily have precise meanings. For example, the FEC refers to groups commonly known as "super PACs" by the commission's official designation, independent-expenditure-only committees. In addition, in popular accounts, terms such as "outside money" are generally understood to include non-candidate funds, but might or might not include activity by parties or groups not primarily regulated by the FEC (such as politically active tax-exempt organizations primarily regulated by Section 501(c) of the Internal Revenue Code).

Overall, interpreting various estimates requires careful attention to which data are included and how they are analyzed. At least four factors may be relevant when examining campaign finance estimates. First, which activities are included? In particular, are the data limited to the political committees (party committees, candidate committees, and political action committees (PACs)) that are most squarely regulated by FECA and subject to contribution limits? If "outside" spending is included, how is that activity defined and which entities are included? Second, because the FEC maintains official figures, the agency usually takes at least a few months to reconcile duplicate entries, correct obvious filing errors, etc., before releasing its most comprehensive analyses. Are the estimates from these reconciled files or "raw" data? If the answer is the latter, do adjustments need to be made? Third, disclosure requirements affect how quickly data are reported to the FEC. Political committees have 30 days to file their post-general election reports (December 8 in 2016). Year-end reports are due on January 31, 2017. Even once the commission releases its election summaries, individual campaigns and other filers can amend their reports to correct for errors or refunds. Consequently, even the FEC's campaign finance data are never really "final." Fourth, aggregate estimates might reveal little about how fundraising or spending affected individual campaigns.

For additional information, see CRS Report R41542, The State of Campaign Finance Policy: Recent Developments and Issues for Congress, by [author name scrubbed].