Tracking Campaign Spending and Dark Money in the 2016 Election

Even though the 2016 elections won’t take place for several months, money is already pouring into Montana’s political races. In addition to familiar television, radio and newspaper ads, expect to see paid advertisements on Facebook, pop-up ads on websites and in your email inbox, plus political ads on Instagram and other social media sites. The challenge for journalists will be to account for the money spent by groups not directly affiliated with a candidate or ballot measure—especially in light of the new wave of social media advertising.

While some of this ad spending is clearly from a candidate or ballot measure committee, it’s also flowing from sources not directly affiliated with those groups. Remember the Special Operations for America (SOFA) political action committee, founded by now-Congressman Ryan Zinke but not formally coordinating with him on political advertising in 2014? Often the links aren’t quite so clear, posing a challenge even for seasoned political journalists.

The Center for Responsive Politics reports that by fall 2015, political organizations trying to influence the 2016 elections had already raised more than $258 million, almost 10 times what was raised at the same point during the 2012 election. And that’s just for federal elections.

Understanding how to track political dollars can be difficult because we’re talking about two different pools of money here—one pool is given to candidates and ballot measures, the other is spent by candidates and committees, as well as by outside groups and organizations. While $13.5 million was given to state candidates and committees in 2012, the total reaches almost $27 million when factoring in “dark money” reported to the Montana Secretary of State’s office.

It’s fairly easy to track the amount of money given directly to Montana candidates and ballot measures, since it must be reported. However, for the outside groups making independent expenditures to try to impact elections, it’s a little trickier. Much of that information won’t be available until after the election when groups file reports with the Montana Secretary of State, the IRS or the Federal Elections Commission. While many journalists—and the public—suffer from political fatigue in the aftermath of an election, it’s still important to track those dollars and compare that to the legislation that’s put forth by those elected officials.

All of this money in politics may be a boon to newspapers and local news stations. But in this era of targeted marketing and social media, it’s difficult to predict whether those organizations will reap the benefits of more money in politics, or whether direct marketing will pull from the traditional “legacy” media outlets. You can bet, however, that the legacy media will do everything they can to tap into the election advertising market; social media will continue to evolve to fight for those dollars; and intrepid reporters will need to put on their running shoes to track down all of the money in politics in 2016.

Eve Byron is a former reporter and current media outreach director for the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which received a $1 million MacArthur grant in 2015. She can be reached at