Politico shows how not to report on campaign contributions

Earlier, Eric Boehlert (and Time's Michael Scherer) noted Politico's efforts to hype campaign contributions Barack Obama's campaigns received from employees of BP. I'm going to spell out two pieces of context the Politico article was missing, because I think it's an excellent example of how not to report on campaign contributions:

Obama biggest recipient of BP cash

While the BP oil geyser pumps millions of gallons of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico, President Barack Obama and members of Congress may have to answer for the millions in campaign contributions they've taken from the oil and gas giant over the years.


During his time in the Senate and while running for president, Obama received a total of $77,051 from the oil giant and is the top recipient of BP PAC and individual money over the past 20 years, according to financial disclosure records.

So, Politico puts Obama in the headline and the lede because he has received more money from people who work for BP than any other elected official. But if you're trying to assess how much influence a company may have over a politician, looking at raw contribution amounts can be badly misleading. You need to consider how much of the politician's war chest the company provided. And that's where it becomes clear that the focus on Obama is absurd.

See, Barack Obama has raised $799 million for his campaigns. The $77,051 he got from BP employees is a drop in the bucket -- just one one-hundredth of one percent of his total campaign cash.

Meanwhile, Rep. Don Young -- mentioned only in passing by Politico -- has taken $73,300 from BP during his time in Congress, out of a total of $14.9 million raised. So BP contributions account for about one half of one percent of Young's fundraising -- still not a staggering amount, but enough to make BP contributions to Young far, far more significant than BP contributions to Obama.

The way Politico reported the BP contributions -- focusing on raw numbers, without putting them in context of the recipients' total fundraising -- is typical of the media's approach to campaign finance stories, but it isn't particularly useful.

The other piece missing from the Politico article is any indication of what -- if anything -- the recipients of BP money have done that might help the company. Politico tells us BP has spent a lot of money, and that BP “has tried to influence energy policy” -- but never tells us what, exactly, BP has wanted. Nor does Politico offer a single example of anything any recipient of BP contributions has done. It focuses entirely on the quid, while ignoring the possibility of a quo pro.

Don Young, for example, was chair of the House Natural Resources Committee for six years, and remains the highest-ranking Republican on the Committee. But Politico apparently never looked into whether he has taken positions that might benefit BP.

In short: Be very wary of news reports that tell you only how much a politician raised from a given company or interest, without telling you how significant that was in the context of his or her overall fundraising and without giving you any indication of what, if anything, the company got out of it. There's a huge difference between a politician who gets a tiny fraction of his campaign cash from employees of Company X, then votes against that company's interests and a politician who gets a significant amount of his war chest from Company Y, then changes a long-standing policy position to comport with the wishes of his benefactor.

(There's also a significant difference between contributions from a company's PAC, contributions from the company's executives, and contributions from rank-and-file employees -- a difference Politico glossed over.)