Who’s Paying for Election Ads? Follow the 527 Widget…


The 30-second ad is typical fare for a campaign: the taxing and spending of a candidate, in this case former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., is pilloried. Her Republican opponent, Sen. John Sununu, facing a tough race, did not pay for the ad out of his own campaign funds. Instead, FEC filings show, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ponied up the $750,000 to attack Shaheen.

Political nonprofits are playing a bigger role than ever in election 2008, and Real Time (with assistance from Sunlight Labs) is making it easy to find the latest information on ads run by independent groups about federal candidates. We cull the information from the FEC’s Electioneering Communication database, which lists all campaign ads that have aired 30 days prior to a primary or 60 days prior to a general election. These reports disclose information on officers of, donors to, and expenditures by these organizations, and must be filed within 24 hours after an ad airs. Real Time has converted this data to an easy to use widget that shows data as it is updated on the FEC site on a daily basis in the run up to the general election in November. Users can also download the data as an Excel spreadsheet.

While Real Time’s widget makes it easy to find the forms, the most interesting information is often buried within the (often handwritten) pages.

In the past month, for example, a little known D.C. nonprofit has spent more than $11.3 million to pay for advertisements praising at least 21 members of Congress. America’s Agenda: Health Care for Kids Inc., an advocacy group that backs the expanding of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), paid to air the ads on or around Sept. 12, 2007 in states across the country. America’s Agenda got the funds to pay for the ads from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), documents filed with the Federal Election Commission reveal.

PhRMA, whose members include most of the leading pharmaceutical companies in the country, is headed by a former member of Congress, Billy Tauzin, R-La. PhRMA lobbied Congress and the executive branch on SCHIP in the past year.

NPR’s Secret Money project noted that the ad supported eight members of the Senate who supported SChip expansion; similarly, all the House members the ad supported–Reps. Harry Mitchell, D-Ariz., Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., Jerry McNerney, D-Calif., Tim Mahoney, D-Minn., Baron Hill, D-Ind., John Yarmuth, D-Ken., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Jason Altmire, D-Pa., Chris Carney, D-Pa., Paul Kanjorski, D-Pa., Steve Kagan, D-Wis. — voted to override President George W. Bush’s veto of SCHIP expansion in Jan. 2008.

Political nonprofits–527s and 501(c)4s–can receive unlimited funds from individuals, corporations and labor unions. While they cannot expressly advocate the election or defeat of a particular candidate, they can run ads that criticize or praise candidates for federal office. The Real Time 527 widget makes it easy to get to the records that show who’s behind the ads.

Unfortunately, the FEC does not require the reports to be electronically filed (as noted, some of them are hand written). To determine which candidate is mentioned or what donors are disclosed on a form, users must follow the link to the filings. Note also that on the FEC disclosure page, many of the filings are amendments. The Real Time 527 widget only captures new filings, not amendments.