Show me the money! Campaign contributions reveal much about your candidate

Forget political ads. Campaign contributions are a trove of information about a candidate's priorities. Here's how to track them.

Steve Ruark/AP
In this Sept. 14 photo, Senate candidate, Rep. Mike Castle (R) of Delaware, joined by his wife Jane (c.) addressed supporters after his defeat on primary election night in Wilmington, Delaware.

November is coming up and maybe you’re still trying to decide whom to vote for in your local race for Congress. You’re a serious voter, so you’ve looked up the candidates’ positions on the issues. You’ve tried to ignore political ads – you know they’re mostly intended to evoke an emotional response, not convey information. Maybe you’ve even attended a town-hall meeting or two.

Great. Now we’ve got a tip – follow the money.

You can learn a lot from a candidate’s Federal Election Commission financial disclosure forms. This is about more than the size of their campaign treasury. FEC filings also can tell you about candidates’ management skills and priorities, as well as who their friends are. And where their friends live.

So here are three tips for reading campaign finance reports (which are readily accessible at the FEC’s website,, as well as, the website of the watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics)

Where’s their money going? FEC reports list individual expenditures, from which you can deduce general priorities.

Have they hired lots of people to knock on doors, or is the bulk of their money going for TV ads? Do they have consultants? Expenditure reports even let you see whether there are repeated payments to fancy restaurants or hair salons.

“All that can be very telling about how they organize their offices or might govern,” says Dave Levinthal, spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics.

How much money is left? Cash on hand is an important political indicator. Fundraising is expensive, so it is possible for a candidate to have raised a lot of cash but have little to spend after the fundraiser bills are paid. It’s also possible to have too much – Rep. Mike Castle (R) of Delaware had $2.6 million left only weeks prior to his primary defeat by Christine O’Donnell. He was hoarding money for a general election he didn’t reach.

What’s their most lucrative ZIP Code? The FEC site allows you to sort a candidate’s contributions from individuals by ZIP Code. This lets you see whether a congressional candidate’s monetary supporters are spread throughout the district or grouped in certain neighborhoods – or even live out of state.

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