In modern American politics, cash is king. Hopeful candidates tap into donor networks, amass millions in contributions, and bury their opponents under a mountain of ads. The strong survive, and the weak are spent into oblivion.
For years the path from donor wallet to campaign war chest was shrouded in mystery. Yes, the records were public, but they were hardly reachable. Researchers could access contribution records by wading through a bureaucratic jungle. Even then, their work was local. They could dredge up a part of the story, but not the whole.
This all changed with the advent of the internet, and the formation of The National Institute on Money in State Politics (NIMSP). NIMSP is a non-profit organization dedicated to the documentation and study of political contributions. I spoke with one of NIMSP's founders, Executive Director Edwin Bender, to learn more about the site, its purpose and its goals.
"The idea was that we were going to take the campaign finance reports that had been locked away... and make them available to the public," said Bender.
NIMSP took on the campaign finance records issue from an entirely new angle. It would bring the records directly to the public, and eliminate the impossibly difficult process of record requests that had hindered research efforts for decades.
Right away, NIMSP began collecting and indexing campaign finance records. Though their focus was on state and local elections, their vision extended nationwide. Within a year of their formation, NIMSP held records from all 50 states. Nearly 20 years later, the organization hosts hundreds of millions of records relating to state and local election contributions.
Through the website's search feature, users can access NIMSP's massive data collection. Individual donors, their contribution amounts, and their recipients are outlined neatly. With a little time and a lot of searching, the story behind campaign finances can begin to take shape.
But why, I asked Bender, should the public care at all? Where's the value in making these records -- which were already public knowledge -- so easily accessible?
Bender explained that campaign finance records are, perhaps, the most telling tool in revealing how American politics take shape.
"There is a campaign finance angle influencing everything that is in the public policy world," he said. "If you don't know why someone was elected or who their supporters were, you probably aren't going to understand why they are pushing pieces of policy."
For a lay-person like myself, the money path starts at the donor and stops at the candidate. Bender and the team at NIMSP see things differently. Bender said that the NIMSP wants to link "what legislation is being introduced, what the agenda is, [and] what candidates are running on." Everything ties back to the finances.
The immediate beneficiary of NIMSP's are scholars and academics who work closely with the institute. "Our best interest is working with groups of people who are using this information for a purpose," said Bender. The peer-reviewed database is a trusted tool for experts, who use it to navigate the web of campaign finance data.
NIMSP's work is purely non-partisan. It does not ascribe to a single philosophy or party, and, according to Bender, is a valued resource on both sides of the aisle.
"We are producing something that is useful to everyone on a myriad of issues," he said.
"The nonpartisan, nonprofit National Institute on Money in State Politics promotes an accountable democracy by compiling comprehensive campaign-donor, lobbyist, and other information from government disclosure agencies nationwide and making it freely available at FollowTheMoney.org." -- NIMSP's mission statement