Tracking campaign finances online Contributions: Two Web sites offer detailed information on who gives how much to whom in campaigns for federal office.

June 15, 1998|By David L. Haase | David L. Haase,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Campaign finances, how do I track thee? Let me count the ways:

One, CRP.org.

Two, FEC Info.

That's it.

With those two Internet databases, voters in the United States have run out of excuses for not knowing how candidates for federal office finance their campaigns.

CRP.org comes from the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group that tracks money in federal politics. Larry Makinson, author of the "Price of Admission" books published after each election since 1988, now directs CRP.

FEC Info is the brainchild of Tony Raymond, a former computer geek at the Federal Election Commission.

In their own ways, Makinson and Raymond are the godfathers of computerized campaign finance reporting.

(Raymond worked with CRP for a time, but they have gone separate ways. That need not concern us.)

Combine these two sources and you have just about everything you could want to know about campaigns for the U.S. House and Senate.

CRP.org probably works better for the political and computer novices among us.

At the CRP home page at www.crp.org, click on the profile of George Washington. You will recognize it from the quarters in your pocket.

That opens the "1998 Congressional Candidates Profile." Pick a state and up pops a list of the congressional districts for that state plus the name and party of the incumbent. If no incumbent is running for that seat, CRP labels the district an "open seat."

Pick your district, click and out comes the first of 10 pages that summarize each race.

Summary No. 1 gives you the total each candidate has raised and spent. The page also compares the figures on a horizontal chart, sort of like a tortoise and hare progress report. This chart very quickly illustrates how close the race for money is, if a race exists at all.

A few short paragraphs of background puts each race in a national context. For instance, it notes that in 1996, 92 percent of the candidates that spent the most money won.

It also tells you how much the average winners spent - $673,000 for House candidates and $4.7 million for Senate victors.

Other summaries tell you where the money came from. You call these up by clicking on the titles that run down the left side of the page. They include:

PAC/Individual splits.

Disclosure. This tells what percentage of big contributions is completely identified, as required by law. You might be surprised at how many are not.

In-state versus out-of-state contributions.

Top metro areas.

Top ZIP codes.

Business, labor and other ideological split.

Sector totals, like communications and electronics, health, labor, lawyers and lobbyists, etc.

Top industries.

Top contributors by employer or affiliation.

Most CRP summary pages print out on one sheet of 8-by-11-inch paper. Charts and graphs reproduce in different shades of gray. It works. It works real darned well.

Raymond arranges things a little bit differently at his FEC Info site.

On his jam-packed home page at www.tray.com/fecinfo, click first on the "All Candidates" line at the top of the left column. That pulls up a list of states.

While CRP.org offers results for 1998, Raymond has compiled the data for every election cycle to 1980! So you have to pick your state and your election year.

That takes you to a state summary site that lists every person who has filed an FEC report during this election cycle.

So while CRP gives you just the active candidates, FEC Info gives you all the candidates, including incumbents who are not running and, indeed, former candidates who have not closed out their campaigns.

So, with CRP, you choose a race. With FEC Info, you take a candidate.

CRP tends to produce summaries, while FEC Info gives you summaries and detail. (It amazed me, but the sites came up with the same totals.)

Both are spare on graphics and load quickly, so you won't wait long for your information.

Which is better? Neither. Both. I don't know.

You want summaries and graphics that illustrate things, plus a little national background, start with CRP.org.

You want the lists of big contributors, or PACs, or contributions broken down by date, take off with FEC Info.

But after you visit one, stop at the other.

You can never know too much about political money, and you will never have an easier way to find it than these two sites - until, of course, they make improvements, as both will.

Pub Date: 6/15/98

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