How politicians control coverage of their fundraising: A Joni Ernst case study

Some incumbency advantages in campaigns are inevitable, like higher name ID and greater ability to raise money from interest groups.

Others are undeserved.

Bleeding Heartland has noted before that Iowa members of Congress, especially U.S. Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst, greatly influence media coverage of their activities. If these elected officials don’t brag about it in a news release or conference call with reporters, Iowans are unlikely ever to hear that it happened. As a result, stories that would shine an unflattering light on the senators largely stay out of the news.

Articles about campaign fundraising shouldn’t suffer from the same dynamic. Journalists can easily do original reporting without being on the ground in Washington. Anyone can access filings on the Federal Election Commission website and convey the key figures to readers.

Yet too often, what Iowans learn about political fundraising is largely written by campaign strategists.

A CONDENSED NEWS RELEASE

The Cedar Rapids Gazette provided a textbook example of this phenomenon in April. First, read the Ernst campaign’s press release about the senator’s fundraising from January through March.

JONI ERNST POSTS STRONG Q1: NEARLY $1.7 MILLION FOR QUARTER; MORE THAN $2.8 MILLION CASH ON HAND
Iowa Senator Received Donations from Iowans in All 99 Counties

Des Moines, IA – U.S. Senator Joni Ernst (R-IA) is in a strong position as she closes out the first quarter of 2019, announcing more than $2.8 million cash on hand and nearly $1.7 million in the first quarter for Joni for Iowa. This marks the largest Q1 fundraising total in the off-year of an election cycle in Iowa. Ernst raised a total of $2.3 million across her campaign committees.

“Joni Ernst is well-positioned to kick off the year,” said Brook Ramlet, senior advisor. “She has strong support across the state, receiving donations from Iowans in every county. Additionally, Joni’s backing continues to grow as more than 40 percent of donations were from first time donors. Iowans know they have a proven, effective voice with Joni fighting for them in Washington and her substantial first quarter numbers reiterate their solid support.”

Q1 Highlights:

  • More than $2.8 million cash on hand
  • Raised nearly $1.7 million for Joni for Iowa, marking the largest Q1 fundraising total in the off-year of an election cycle in Iowa.
  • Raised a total of $2.3 million across her campaign committees
  • Donations from Iowans in every county
  • More than 43 percent of donations were from first time donors
  • About 88 percent were small dollar donations
  • Now, click through to read James Q. Lynch’s story for the Cedar Rapids Gazette in its entirety. The headline and lede adopt the campaign’s preferred frame. The story includes two quotes from Ramlet and every statistic highlighted in the six bullet points.

    Having spent years writing daily news briefs subject to tight word limits, I know it’s not easy to compress a 233-word news release into a 160-word article without losing any substantive content. But it’s not Lynch’s job to transmit Republican spin concisely. The task at hand was to bring important or revealing fundraising numbers to readers.

    Where is the news value in repackaging a statement from the campaign on April 11, when Lynch could have drawn his own conclusions after reviewing the complete first-quarter filing four days later?

    Since the Gazette partners with other publications on political reporting, this reproduction of Ernst’s messaging reached far beyond subscribers to the Cedar Rapids newspaper. The article appeared in the Sioux City Journal, the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier, and the Mason City Globe-Gazette on April 12.

    MISSING CONTEXT ON ERNST’S 1Q FUNDRAISING

    Ernst did raise an impressive amount during the first three months of this year, and the first-quarter filing for the senator’s main campaign committee, Joni for Iowa, is consistent with the top figures in the press release.

    Total receipts: $1,689,989.98
    Cash on hand as of March 31: $2,815,962.61

    A casual reader of Lynch’s article might think Ernst’s $1.7 million haul came largely from grassroots supporters. In fact, the campaign received $1,126,709.98 in total contributions and $563,278.64 in transfers from other committees (more on that below).

    Neither the news release nor Lynch’s account mentioned political action committees. But just under half of Joni for Iowa’s first-quarter contributions ($549,746.45) came from individuals (a mix of small and large donors). PACs gave $576,963.53, representing numerous corporations, industry trade groups, and committees affiliated with Ernst’s fellow GOP senators.

    I can’t tell from the FEC report whether “More than 43 percent of donations were from first time donors,” as the campaign’s news release asserted. I also can’t tell whether “first time donors” meant those giving to Ernst for the first time (as seems probable) or those who had never previously donated to any candidate (unlikely). A journalist should clarify and confirm that kind of detail before regurgitating it to readers.

    If contributions totaled about $1.1 million, how did the campaign report a $1.7 million quarter? The remaining $563,278.64 came from transfers, a combination of four-figure gifts from the super-wealthy and five-figure transfers from Ernst Victory Iowa, a joint fundraising committee.

    The Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets website explains that such committees make life more convenient for campaigns and well-off donors.

    Joint fundraising committees can be created by two or more candidates, PACs or party committees to share the costs of fundraising, and split the proceeds. Participants in the JFC can’t take any more money from a donor than they could if the money was given directly, but this vehicle allows a donor to write one very large check. Before the 2014 McCutcheon v. FEC decision, the checks donors wrote to JFCs were subject to overall aggregate limits. Following the decision, those limits were removed, opening up the possibility of JFCs that involve many candidates or committees, which can then solicit one donor for a mega-contribution.

    Ernst Victory Iowa raised more than $1 million during the first quarter, mostly from large individual donors (plus $10,000 from PACs). Most of those funds were transferred to Ernst’s campaign, her federal PAC, or her state PAC on or before March 31.

    So, while Lynch echoed the campaign’s claim that “about 88 percent were small-dollar donations,” only a small fraction of the $1.7 million came from small-dollar donors. All of the transfer money (about a third of the receipts), all of the PAC money (about a third of the receipts) and most of the money from individuals came from people or entities that can afford to write checks totaling thousands of dollars.

    Ernst’s staff didn’t invent this sleight of hand. Many Republican and Democratic campaigns play the same game, hyping the number of small-dollar donations, even when most of the money came from major donors.

    That’s one reason Bleeding Heartland never runs a story about campaign fundraising based on any press release. My editorial policy is to write only after new filings become available on the FEC or Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board websites.

    What about the $2.3 million Ernst raised “across her campaign committees” during the first quarter? The federal Jobs Opportunity and New Ideas PAC (JONI PAC) hasn’t reported yet this year. An FEC filing due on July 31 will cover that PAC’s fundraising and expenditures from January through June. I assume it will show roughly $600,000 in first-quarter contributions. Previous filings indicate that while a few donors regularly give small amounts to the JONI PAC, most of its money comes from four-figure contributions from wealthy individuals, corporate or industry PACs, and GOP senators’ campaign committees.

    NEW QUARTER, SAME OLD STORY

    Joni for Iowa filed its second-quarter report on the due date of July 15. But the campaign got its spin in front of many thousands of Iowans before then.

    This news release hasn’t been posted on the Joni for Iowa website yet, but you can tell Lynch’s July 12 article for the Cedar Rapids Gazette tracks closely to the campaign’s framing. Shane Vander Hart’s story for the conservative blog Caffeinated Thoughts contains the same facts and sound bites:

  • $1.1 million raised from April through June
  • $3.4 million cash on hand
  • more cash on hand than any previous Iowa Congressional candidate at a comparable point in the election cycle
  • more than 40 percent of donations from first-time donors (again, the statistic was not explained)
  • Like Vander Hart, Lynch relied on Ernst’s top campaign staffer for analysis.

    Although her fundraising for the second quarter was less than in the first, Ernst’s campaign manager said it’s clear she has “strong grass roots enthusiasm behind her campaign.

    “Support continues to build, and that’s because at a time of extreme partisanship, Iowans know that Joni pushes past the noise to fight for Iowans and advance their voices in Washington,” Sam Pritchard said.

    Keep in mind that at the time he filed his story on July 12, Lynch had no way of verifying

    1) how many “grass roots” donors gave to Ernst in the second quarter;
    2) how many Iowans gave to her campaign during that period;
    3) how much of the $1.1 million intake came from Iowans; or
    4) what share of 2Q receipts came from individuals, as opposed to PACs, Senate Republican campaign committees, or Ernst’s own joint fundraising committee.

    Why let Ernst’s strategists dictate when and how Iowa’s second-largest newspaper covers the senator’s fundraising? Lynch could have held off for three days and reviewed the latest quarterly filing himself.

    Had he done so, he could have noted that only $452,154.56 raised from April through June came from individuals. The itemized list reveals that four-figure gifts accounted for most of the money, even though many small donors contributed too.

    Another long list of PACs and GOP-linked committees contributed $287,500.00. Transfers from other committees made up the last big chunk of Ernst’s second-quarter receipts ($385,011.86). Wealthy individuals and corporate or trade association PACs provided most of those funds. Ernst Victory Iowa, the joint fundraising committee, transferred $227,001 to the main campaign account and made sizable deposits in the senator’s federal and state PACs on the last day of the quarter.

    In other words, the numbers Joni for Iowa quietly filed with the FEC did not match the “strong grass roots enthusiasm” narrative blasted to the media three days earlier.

    Waiting for the full picture also would have allowed Lynch to observe that Ernst more than doubled her campaign spending, from $229,077.06 during the first quarter to $484,625.23 from April through June. Notable line items included $45,875 for polling, payroll supporting new staffers, hundreds of thousands of dollars for various types of consulting, and tens of thousands for printing direct mail and postage.

    Again, Lynch’s story appeared in the Sioux City Journal, the Waterloo/Cedar Falls Courier, and the Mason City Globe-Gazette as well as in the Cedar Rapids newspaper.

    Strangely, the July 12 article mentioned salient facts from Joni for Iowa’s 1Q filing (published on April 15).

    The first quarter fundraising included almost $1.13 million coming from contributions that were nearly evenly split between individual contributions and contributions from other committees.

    Transfers from authorized committees accounted for another $563,279, according to the Federal Election Commission records. The campaign spent $237,077 in the January through March period.

    That information could have been reported in mid-April, if the Gazette hadn’t rushed to rewrite a campaign news release instead.

    My plea to journalists and editors working for traditional news organizations: worry less about being the first to cover quarterly fundraising numbers and more about being used by candidates and office-holders.

    P.S.– Ernst’s state-level PAC, JONI PAC Iowa, reported $315,521.80 in contributions to the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board on July 19. All but $10,100 of that amount came from Ernst Victory Iowa, the federal joint fundraising committee.

    • Who controls Iowa Elections: Ernst is dependent on PAC's, not regular Iowan and Russian interference

      Thanks Bleeding Heartland for pointing out how Senator Ernst’s campaign is more susceptible to influence from big money special interests than from individual Iowans.Too often, Iowans learn about this after elections. So, what is Senator Ernst doing to change campaign finance or is she fine with the current system that permits our democracy to be disproportionately influence by large special interest. And candidates who are running against Senator Ernst, you should be writing this post and putting Ernst on the defensive. And couple that Russian interfering in past, present and future elections, where is our party and candidates challenging candidates to ensure campaigns are not controlled by large interests and Russians.Senator Mark Warner tried to get a Senate bill to confront Russian interference–did our Senators stand with most Iowans who agree with Warner, or did our Senators prefer Russian interference in Iowa elections.

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