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Learning why transparency matters: a new Sunlight Foundation research project

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We have so far been fortunate that most people intuitively grasp the value of technology-driven openness and transparency, and as a result, an impressive range of NGOs and governments around the world are building on the basic understanding that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” (Justice Brandeis’ aphorism that gave the Sunlight Foundation its name). For example, as of this writing, 58 countries have signed onto the Open Government Partnership. But the quick-to-grasp nature of transparency’s potential has its dangers: 1) that we cease asking questions about it because it has become an article of faith; and 2) that, as strong advocates for the cause, we begin to oversell its potential (and thus undermine its genuine contributions). This year, we are kicking off an attempt to both clarify and test our understandings of what transparency can do. Thanks to support from Google.org, we at Sunlight are embarking on a research project to evaluate the impacts of technology-driven transparency policies around the world. We plan to conduct a series of case studies.

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Primary Spending Strategies May Have Shifted General Election Outcomes

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In the two weeks since Election Day, Sunlight -- along with many others -- have examined the impact of outside money. In competitive House seats we found no statistically observable relationship between the outside spending and the likelihood of victory, and found no evidence of spending impacting outcomes for the Senate either. It's important to note that those who contributed to the $1.4 billion spent by outside groups still matters, though. As Executive Director Ellen Miller notes: "Even if their candidates lost, the influence bought by America's new class of mega donors will remain." Here, we find some indication that outside spending in primary races may have had implications for general election outcomes this cycle. In the competitive races where there was significant primary activity by outside spenders, as compared to a baseline in which parties retaining control of seats they held in the 112th Congress, Democrats over-performed while Republicans significantly underperformed. Furthermore, we found notable involvement by outside Democratic groups in Republican primaries which may have played a roll, while finding little evidence of parallel Republican activity. We looked at the 90 races in the House that were competitive as of September 6th, according to the Cook Political Report (Likely, Lean or Tossup). Of these competitive seats, in the 19 where there was more than $10,000 in outside Democratic spending, Democrats won 17, a success rate of 89%. This was despite the fact that 12 of those 19 seats were previously held by Republicans. In contrast, of the 25 seats where there was over $10,000 in outside Republican spending, Republicans only won 11, or 44%. 17 of these seats had been held by Republicans prior to the election.

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How Independent are Outside Groups? Not very.

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Almost a quarter of the $1.2 billion spent in this election cycle ($292.6 million.) has come from dark money organizations, typically 501(c) groups, which are not required to disclose their donors. These groups, led by Karl Rove’s Crossroads GPS and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are afforded such leeway because they cast themselves as “social welfare organizations” engaged in non-political issue advocacy. These organizations claim to be independent of the political party infrastructure, and the overtly political super PACs, but their behavior suggests otherwise. We find, instead, that many of these groups' allocations of resources closely resembles the patterns observed in party committees, like the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) or the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC). We looked at the 33 outside groups with over $2 million in total spending as of November 2nd, excluding those organizations, which had only spent on the presidential race. By looking at which candidates these groups have spent in support or opposition of, as well as how much they have spent, we have calculated the group’s spending similarity to the Republican and Democratic Senatorial and Congressional committees. These scores range from -1 to 1. A score of 1 indicates that a group allocates its funds across the relevant races in exactly the same ratios as the committee to which it is being compared, and -1 indicates perfectly opposed allocations. Of the groups analyzed spending in the Senate, the average similarity score for that group as compared to the party committee with which it is aligned was 0.395. In the house the effects were notably weaker, with an average similarity score as compared to the aligned party committee of only 0.171. This indicates that outside groups pick and choose the House races in which to be involved much more selectively in the House than the Senate, as compared to party committees whose spending is more widespread. A highly similar spending allocation indicates that an organization is working towards the same strategic goals as one of the party committees, while a directly opposing allocation indicates that it is working against that committee’s goals. One might expect that non-political groups would appear more independent than the overtly partisan super PACs. Were this the case, ‘non-political’ 501(c)s would tend to have scores closer to 0 than super PACs. However, analysis of the data here finds no evidence, that the spending of these 501(c) groups is any less partisan than the registered super PACs. Our analysis found no statistically significant variation in these similarity scores between super PACs and the 501(c)s. If anything, the dark money groups seem to emulate one party’s spending or oppose the others spending to greater extent than do the super PACs. Instead, we find high levels of similarity between the party committees and their aligned outside group, which calls in to question the independence of these controversial groups.

Party Alignment     Organization Type

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