POLITICS
03/28/2008 02:46 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fundraising Hauls Create Headaches For Watchdog Groups

Much to the consternation of Republicans, Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have made history this election season by raising unprecedented amounts of campaign cash. But the GOP faithful aren't the only ones fretting.

The huge money hauls for the Democratic candidates have also created headaches and late-night stress for those groups and individuals whose job it is to follow the fundraising industry.

Indeed, whether it be the $35 million Clinton raised this February, or the million individual donor mark Obama passed last week, the life of a money-in-politics watchdog has never been so taxing.

"It is pretty intense during the election cycle," said Alex Knott, co-editor of Congressional Quarterly's MoneyLine. "And given that it is a very fluid race, with no strong winner, people are looking at everything closely, especially campaign finance."

Should it be this hard? As the fundraising industry has evolved, so too has the technology designed to organize the data. By law, if a donor gives more than $200 to a presidential candidate, the campaign must submit that person's name, address, occupation, and amount given for the public record. At the Federal Elections Commission, these forms, which number in the hundreds-of-thousands for any given period, still only require a few hours to upload online.

What happens after, however, is an ongoing and increasingly difficult process of categorization.

Groups that track political donations synthesize their findings into several categories. At Huffington Post's Fundrace, for instance, users can search by geography, occupation, and industry among others. Technology drastically eases the workload, but, in order to get the numbers as close to exact, humans must actually intervene. For instance, the same donor might give variations on his or her address (home v. work), obscure businesses must be grouped under an industry, and, on occasion, the same employer can be listed in two distinct ways (i.e. General Electric or GE).

"You need humans ultimately to figure out what these people do for a living and find matches and patterns," said Massie Ritsch. "When you have an election with so many new people entering the system we can't just rely on our past research to make matches Ron Paul's people, for example a lot of them have never been in our system before. There is not a lot of bundling. So we have had to research hundreds of places of work to see what these people do. We've seen wizard, circus clown, and even slave show up in the records. And we've categorized them as live entertainment, miscellaneous service, and scientific pursuits."

This, however, is just half of the battle. As candidates raise more and more money, they are spending it with greater frequency as well. And while each campaign is required to list to whom and for what expenditures over $200 are made, often these filings require classification (polling v. direct mail, for example). All of this has created a myriad of different data and press requests for money-in-politics groups to deal with.

"To go through on the expenditure side and figure out where the money is going, there are manifold stories just from that," said Bill Hogan, who heads up the Center for Public Integrity's Buying of the President project. "There are a lot more stories to write and in certain ways they are harder stories to write. Without soft money, which made it easier to write about big donors in the past, you have to now look at bundlers and individual donors. And connecting the dots today is a lot more difficult than it was years ago."

Indeed, beyond the sheer length of the campaign season, the biggest factor in the increased workload for these watchdog groups has been media attention. Industry publications do stories about which candidates their industry is supporting. Local papers write about the contributions from their zip codes. Entertainment writers will take a glance at who in Hollywood has opened up their checkbook. And the national press is constantly sifting through records to find the latest conflict-of-interest angle.

Bob Biersack, a spokesperson for the FEC, said he receives, on average, 30-50 press calls a day. Ritsch, meanwhile, noted that if candidates file their campaign finance data by midnight, at 9 am the next morning he has messages from reporters asking how much individual hedge funds have given. "The media's expectation is that this data is thrown into a computer and immediately spit back out," he said, "that is far from the case."

And it won't get any easier going forward. As the Democratic primary threatens to extend into the summer, groups and donors gear for the general election battle soon thereafter, the possibility firmly exists that the life of a money-in-politics watchdog will grow only increasingly hectic.

"There is a huge amount of interest and people are looking a lot closer because of the close race," said Knott. "It is not just a race of delegates or votes, it's a race for money."