Yet it’s had another consequence that has gone all but unnoticed. The campaign finance reports filed by Obama and Clinton have grown so massive that they’ve strained the capacity of the Federal Election Commission, good government groups, the media and even software applications to process and make sense of the data.
A milestone of sorts was reached earlier this year, when Obama, the Illinois senator whose revolutionary online fundraising has overwhelmed Clinton, filed an electronic fundraising report so large it could not be processed by popular basic spreadsheet applications like Microsoft Excel 2003 and Lotus 1-2-3.
Those programs can’t download data files with more than 65,536 rows or 256 columns.
Obama’s January fundraising report, detailing the $23 million he raised and $41 million he spent in the last three months of 2007, far exceeded 65,536 rows listing contributions, refunds, expenditures, debts, reimbursements and other details. It was the first report to confound basic database programs since 2001, when the Federal Election Commission began directly posting candidates’ fundraising reports online in an effort to make political money more accessible and transparent to voters.
By March, the reports filed by Clinton, a New York senator who attributes Obama’s victories in several states to her own lack of money, also could no longer be downloaded into spreadsheets using basic applications.
If you want to comb through Obama or Clinton’s cash, you either need to divide and import their reports section-by-section (a time-consuming and mind-numbing process) or purchase a more powerful database application, such as Microsoft Access or Microsoft Excel 2007, both of which retail for $229.
Or, you can rely on the analysis done by specialized research groups like the Center for Responsive Politics, the Campaign Finance Institute or CQ Moneyline.
“Our people are working harder than ever and faster than ever because the candidates are raising more money more quickly than ever and there’s such intense interest in who’s raising what from whom,” said Massie Ritsch, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics. “We know that reporters, in particular, don’t have a lot of time and aren’t always trained in how to manipulate spreadsheets so we’re happy to do it for them.”
In a revealing insight into the significant fundraising disparity between the two Democrats and presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Arizona Sen. John McCain, it is still possible to download his reports with plain-old Excel.
Yet even those with access to higher-powered software capable of handling the Obama and Clinton data aren’t necessarily able to start crunching numbers on the 20th of each month, when the campaigns’ monthly reports are due at the FEC.
That’s partly because the agency’s website, which automatically processes and posts electronic data filed by the campaigns, on at least one occasion was unable to quickly process and post Obama’s report.
The site was updated by noon the next day, pointed out FEC spokesman George Smaragdis.
These developments have occurred despite the FEC’s efforts to offer presidential campaign finance data to the public in user-friendly ways. Though not directly related to the challenges of digesting and presenting the bulging presidential reports, longtime agency spokesman Bob Biersack – the go-to guy for reporters with questions about commission data, rules or history – recently alerted reporters in an email that he would be moving into a new position focused on improving the way the commission mkes data available on the Web.
As the commission has added tools for sorting data, he wrote “it has become increasingly hard to keep track of all of the material that's available and how to navigate through it - getting exactly the answer you were looking for and also pointers to other relevant (information). So, my new job will be to fix all of that - pull everything together, make the navigation straightforward, provide historical context, take advantage of new Web applications.”
Some things, however, are beyond the commission’s control. Both Obama and Clinton tend to file their reports just before the midnight deadline, which reduces the coverage and newsworthiness of potentially significant stories buried in the data.
That’s sometimes left initial news stories dependent on basic summaries of the data provided by the campaigns themselves.
The summaries, which mirror those eventually posted on the FEC’s website, contain only top-line numbers – how much the candidate raised, spent, borrowed and owed at the end of the month.
Many media outlets rely on such summaries and don’t download or delve deeply into the data upon which they are based. The result often is horse-race-style money coverage – who’s raised more, how unprecedented the levels of money are and what it means for the campaigns– which can sometimes create incomplete or inaccurate reporting or cause more important stories to be overlooked.
For instance, multiple media outlets relied on the summary entry entitled “Debts and Obligations Owed by the Committee” in reporting that Clinton at the end of March owed $10 million, including $5 million she had loaned her own campaign.
A deeper look into the report would have revealed that she did not report her personal loan to the campaign as debt, meaning that her debt would have actually been $15 million including the loan.
And only by actually downloading the data file could you see that much of the debt was in the form of unpaid bills to vendors, some of which were more than one month old.
That type of analysis revealed the extent of the financial hardship of her campaign and presaged serious weaknesses that hindered her ability to compete with Obama in subsequent states.
Since then, Clinton has loaned her campaign at least another $6 million, but in more recent reports has included the personal loans under the debt section of the report.