Explanatory Journalism! Decaf Koch: A friend sent me a chart from Robert Reich’s Facebook page. You may have seen it –– this one. It has “Koch spending during the 2012 election” at $412 million, while spending by unions is weak by comparison — only $153 million from the top 10 unions. Reich’s chart seems to come from Republic Report, which in turn relies on this Washington Post story by Matea Gold.
The trouble is–and there’s almost always trouble with statistics from Robert Reich – -the $412 million isn’t just from “two brothers seeking to entrench their power and privilege.” According to Gold, it’s from
“a network of politically active nonprofit groups backed by the Kochs and fellow donors” [Emphasis added].
So 1) We don’t know how much of the $412 million comes from the two Koch brothers, and how much from “fellow donors” — and there seem to be lots of other wealthy sympathizers who contribute. (Gold interviews one of them, a Denver businessman who gives $100,000 a year.) Most likely, as Gold suggests, there is a “large pool” of contributors, numbering in the hundreds. The Koch brothers are just leaders/lightning rods/demon figures.
Also, 2) the $412 million isn’t “spending.” It’s the amount raised by the network of nonprofits — not necessarily the amount spent.
Plus 3) the $412 million may overstate the Koch-group backing of these “Koch-backed” groups. The WaPo story (like most Koch stories) ultimately relies on work from the Center for Responsive Politics, which has tried to unravel the Koch network’s complicated, octopus-like structure. Let’s take one of the “politically active non-profit groups,” Americans for Prosperity. It’s clearly affiliated with the Koch network. The Koch’s main non-profit groups gave AFP “more than $44 million” according to Gold. But, as I understand the Center for Responsive Politics’ methodology, the $412 million figure includes, not just that $44 million, but all the $140 million raised by AFP, excluding amounts that identifiably came from non-Koch sources — which yields a number higher than $100 million . How do we know that the all this $100+ million or so — i.e., not just the $44 million — comes from the Koch network? We don’t. Center for Responsive Politics could only easily trace contributions from non-profits, not from individuals or corporations. The CRP researchers just seem to have adopted a rule of thumb that the residual, untraced money is from either the Kochs or other donors in their network.
Finally, 4) Gold admits that (even if the $400+ million figure is accurate**) the unions “matched” the Koch network through their “long-established national coalition … that serves as one of the biggest sources of support for Democrats. ” She reports: “[U]nions plowed roughly $400 million into national, state and local elections in 2012.” … Update: Union spending seems to be much higher if you look at filings with the Department of Labor, which include spending to influence the votes of union members as well as contributions to candidates. According to this Wall Street Journal news (not editorial!) story, a single union — the SEIU — spent about as much in the 2010 cycle ($150 million) as the Republic Report chart claims the top 10 unions spent in the 2012 cycle. The AFL-CIO unions spent $608 million for the 2010 elections. They undoubtedly spent at least as much for 2012 — even-the-liberal Huffington Post comes up with $1.7 billion in total union 2012 spending, including $600 million in contributions and lobbying (counting state elections). Beats the Koch conglomeration, and not by a little. [Thanks to alert FB reader J.]
Clearly, the Kochs are involved in a network that spends a whole lot of money trying to influence American politics, as are labor unions. But the Republic Report chart cited by Reich (and, alas, the normally reliable Jonathan Cohn) is highly deceptive.
P.S.: I’m not happy with the Kochs’ influence — they’re pro-amnesty! But if rich Americans want to band together to spend their money pontificating about politics and trying to persuade citizens to take their government in a certain direction, that seems to me to be their First Amendment right. (Direct contributions to candidates’ campaigns, as the Supreme Court has ruled, are something else.)
P.P.S.: If the Kochs are the big Dem issue in 2014, the Dems are in big trouble. But this is just the webbische, base-rousing, fund-raising phase of the campaign. The party will have to come up with something else to appeal to actual voters in the fall. …
**–Gold’s “Koch-backed” total, which comes from the CRP, is $407 million. The $412 million figure is apparently derived by Republic Report by adding in $4.9 million in disclosed political contributions from the Koch’s PAC (political action committee).