Money won bigly in 2016: An expert tells us how to follow the money in politics

Policy changes should be based on merits (and backed by evidence), not on the money

Published December 27, 2016 12:30AM (EST)

 (Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Shutterstock/Salon)
(Reuters/Lucas Jackson/Shutterstock/Salon)

This piece originally appeared on

In our post-election series on #Keeping Democracy Alive, we’ve been soliciting essays and opinions of some of the people on the front lines of that battle. As part of that effort, Kathy Kiely sent five questions to Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan nonprofit that provides data on campaign contributions and other information on the relationships between donors and political decision-makers.

In the most recent presidential election, the candidate who raised the most money didn’t win. Why should people still worry about the influence of money on politics?

In a very real sense, money did win, just not in the way we’re accustomed to measuring it. Trump raised about $248 million ­— $322 million including all of the allied super PACs like “Great America PAC” and “Rebuilding America Now.” Not exactly chump change, but Clinton raised double that: The campaign alone raised nearly $500 million; $700 million including allied outside groups.

But in presidential general election campaigns, money typically ceases to be the barrier to success for major-party nominees that it can be in the primary or for third-party candidates. Once the general election candidates reach a point of financial viability, it’s less about the money and more about their appeal as candidates and their ability to connect with voters. Neither Trump nor Clinton was hampered by a lack of cash. In fact, both candidates ended the campaign with leftover funds; Clinton with $62 million and Trump with $15 million.

But Trump had been running long before he started to seriously chase campaign cash. And during that time, he earned unprecedented free media. He already was masterful at working the media based on his longstanding reality show, "The Apprentice," his beauty pageants (Miss USA, Miss Teen USA, and Miss Universe) and his books ("The Art of the Deal," "The Art of the Comeback"). It was enormously beneficial that he was already a household name in America. On the campaign trail, he was a walking, talking reality show, fomenting political controversy wherever he went and seeming to embrace the notion that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Arguably he was right. Interviewers often let him hold forth without much, if any, fact-checking or debate. He’s a masterful operator in (some would say “of”) the media and publicity spheres that so often mirrors the political sphere. By that measure he had “spent” $4.3 billion through July.

Donald Trump says he wants to “drain the swamp” in Washington. Is there anything about his campaign and transition that makes you hopeful he will? Is there anything about his campaign and transition that gives you doubts?

Whether Donald Trump is likely to be successful in “draining the swamp” depends largely on what you think that means. It may well mean reducing the power and influence of lobbyists — also a goal of Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign. Obama’s first-term efforts were not viewed as being all that successful at “changing the culture in Washington;” maybe they were the wrong efforts, tactically. Whatever the reason, it is extremely difficult to effect that kind of cultural shift, far more than it is to promise it on the campaign trail.

Trump’s supporters like his unorthodox and brash approach — so much so that it may count more than delivering on his promises (his fans took him seriously, but not literally). So will they hold him accountable on “draining the swamp?” The people he has appointed so far are largely affluent elites or political insiders, so it doesn’t seem likely that these will be the folks to finally move Washington away from a system that’s beneficial to or represented by them.

What is the single best tool journalists and citizens should be using to better watchdog their elected officials?

Naturally, here at the Center for Responsive Politics we are partial to our own website,, which is chock-full of high quality, value-added conflict-of-interest data sets, including: campaign contributions by recipient or by donor industry; spending — both disclosed and undisclosed spending by outside groups (aka “dark money”); campaign spending, lobbying spending, the revolving door, personal financial disclosures — data sets that allow the press and public to more easily and effectively watchdog their government. And we have new tools coming online, including two that we’ve newly adopted from the Sunlight Foundation: Political Party Time and data on lobbying by foreign governments and interests (coming soon).

We also have our own blog, where we publish original journalism that can help keep you up to date on important money-in-politics stories and trends.

And there are many other high-quality, reliable tools out there; we all need to be more savvy about using them. The National Institute on Money in State Politics has state-level campaign finance data. A recently launched public tool is EveryCRSreport, which provides access to thousands of previously hidden Congressional Research Service reports that our tax dollars fund.

The public pays for, and can access, a wealth of data from and about their federal government on A great and relatively new state resource (and model for other states) is California’s Digital Democracy website, which allows searches for names, topics, etc., and shows transcripts of hearings, as well as a video clip of the event.

For reporters, membership in Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) is one of the most valuable “tools”/networks around. It has a huge collection of databases and tipsheets, and sponsors mentorship programs.

What is the single biggest frustration watchdog groups like the Center for Responsive Politics face in tracking the influence of money on politics, and what is the single most important thing the new administration could do to make it easier?

Watchdog groups like ours are very often frustrated by the perception that data isn’t important. Granted, it doesn’t feel as impactful as advocacy, but sound arguments are grounded in and guided by high-quality, reliable data. Our view is that hypotheses must be tested with data. Policy changes should be based on the merits (and backed by evidence), not on the money. Data like ours tells us “where we’ve been” and can be used to make smart decisions and predict what’s ahead. So if you value evidence-based decision making, we need evidence — data — that is freely available to all that we can all test and agree is solid. We make all of our data accessible for groups and individuals to use (free for noncommercial use) and test.

We’ve been fortunate that, over the years, the government offices that have provided the data we rely upon have done so with increasing levels of efficiency. But they don’t have the mandate to add the value to the data that CRP adds, nor will they present it in all the various ways that we do or can. These government disclosure offices serve a vital function, allowing groups like ours to sort and sift it for context, patterns and meaning and share it with the public.

The primary thing the new administration can do is support government agency personnel to continue to dutifully gather, organize and provide access to the government data that is so crucial to the press, public academics and researchers. The new administration must continue the work of prior administrations to keep government records, particularly the “conflict of interest” data that CRP relies on to populate, open and freely available.

Aside from “write checks,” is there any message you have for donors who are interested in supporting democracy-promoting organizations as we enter the holiday giving season?

As anyone who has worked in a nonprofit knows, writing checks is no small thing. It can mean the difference between doing work that needs to be done or not doing it.

Aside from supporting these organizations financially, however, there are several important things that we must all strive to do:

  • In an era of “fake news,” each of us must take extra care to ensure that our news sources are credible and to seek alternative perspectives — much as we expect our representatives in Washington to do the same. Do your due diligence. Don’t be the choir.
  • If you come across an impactful story from a news outlet or nonprofit organization that you respect, share it! Especially on Facebook, sharing more than “liking” will help the organization promote content that deserves an audience.
  • If, like most of us, you engage on social media, be civil. Don’t be a troll and don’t feed the trolls. The divisions in society are serious and we can’t just wish to return to the days where societal norms held virulent behavior in check. Set your standards, live by them and talk about why they’re important to you.
  • Our government needs to get back to governing, and doing so ethically and responsibly — but politicians won’t get there without public pressure. We can no longer trust long-standing norms to be honored in state capitals or Washington. So don’t leave it up to them. Sure, we can’t individually pass laws or call hearings, but we can recognize that they work for us and start acting like they’re accountable to us, or should be. We pay their salaries. So, if you don’t like what you just experienced in this election, you have three choices: Do nothing and get more of the same; organize and take your chances that despite gerrymandering and money’s influence your side will win; or be your own representative. Maybe if we all had more skin in the game, we’d get better results and more of us would bother to vote.
  • We can debate how big government should be, but we should never allow government to be as dysfunctional as it has become, unable to handle big challenges. Partisan ends (by both parties) have been used to justify power grabs, a childish ostracism of opposing parties and, effectively, abdication or “government nullification” by its leaders. The current “by any means necessary” approach is not representation. It’s not what the founders intended, nor is it what most Americans want. We need to knit back together a fractured society and reinvigorate a conversation about lost values and canons, before its toll on democracy becomes too great to reverse. “A democracy if you can keep it,” indeed.

By Kathy Kiely

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