BP And Obama: Playing Internet Gotcha With Campaign Finance Numbers

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Politico has a scoop today tailor-made for the online, read-a-headline-and-click-away culture. “Obama Biggest Recipient of BP Cash” it blares, gaining the coveted Matt Drudge link with a dollar sign in the word “CA$H” to prove the point. In the print copy of Politico, the Drudge-bait is toned down, “Before Spill, BP Pumped Money Into Washington.” Campaign finance stories like this are necessary, especially with the Washington Post reporting today that the Obama Administration exempted BP’s Gulf of Mexico drilling from environmental study on an apparently flawed premise. But one can’t help but wonder if this specific campaign finance story was written in an overly online-friendly way.

My concern is that the story wins the Drudge link, but fails to provide the context readers need. It is true that according to this online database Obama received slightly more money from BP’s PAC and employees since 1990 than anyone else. But there is a major a reason for that, which the story fails to mention: People who run for President raise much more money, and received much more money from BP interests–and just about every other interest. The fourth highest recipient of BP money in the same time period is George W. Bush. The fifth highest recipient is John McCain. In the 2000 and 2004 cycles, Bush got the most money, albeit less than Obama received in 2008. But then one could adjust these numbers for campaign inflation: campaigns overall raised much less money in the 2000 and 2004 cycles than the record-smashing 2008 cycle.

The article presents the money as a largely Democratic problem, highlighting the donations to Obama and Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu at the top of the piece. Much lower down do we get mention of the fact that historically Republicans have taken much more money from BP, but this is buried in the assertion that Democrats have almost pulled even with Republicans in recent years. That’s one way of slicing the numbers. Another would be to say that in the last 20 years, BP has given 71 percent of its money to Republicans, and 29 percent to Democrats. (That number is not in the story, which also chooses not to count soft money contributions during the 20-year horizon. If soft money, which was given to party committees, not individuals, Obama would no longer be the top recipient. BP, for instance, gave more than $100,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, far more than the money that went to Obama.) One could also point out that of the top 30 recipients of BP money over this time period, 26 are Republican and only four are Democrats.

One other bit of context that might have been useful in the Politico story, but might also have hurt its chances for news cycle impact: The Center for Responsive Politics keeps a list of heavy hitter institutional campaign donors. By total donations given since 1989, BP ranks number 106, behind the Southern Company, Exxon, Chevron and even Enron, which has not existed for most of the last decade. BP’s total donations, of more than $6 million with soft money, pales in comparison to the $45 million given by AT&T, which is number one on the list, or the $32 million that was given by Goldman Sachs, over the same time period.

Another interesting question to ask is, has BP historically punched its own weight in campaign contributions? In recent years, BP has been listed as the fourth largest company in the world by revenue. Exxon, which has had slightly larger revenue, gave 74 percent more money in contributions than BP over the same period ($10.8 million vs. $6.2 million). Now revenue is a crude measure of a company’s regulatory interests. But it can also be said that adding such context, while serving the reader, might have dimmed the chances of success online. In the Interweb, as we all know, articles tend to thrive when they appeal simply to partisan loyalties.

(Now here’s an interesting test for those interested in the meta-game: Will this post, by challenging the premise of a headline that appeals to conservative readers with a headline that appeals to liberal readers, get rewarded by links to liberal blogs? We are all fish now, after all. Politico just tends to swim faster.)

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