Follow The Money: Cambridge Analytica and the US election spending database

Image showing Cambridge Analytica as a dot out of a 500 companies database
Cambridge Analytica had a much wider involvement in the 2016 US elections than their work for Donald Trump's Presidential campaign. Using the Federal Election Commission database, our research establishes Cambridge Analytica as a partisan company, earning a total of US$16,098,994 from Republican committees across the Presidential, Senate and House elections.

Cambridge Analytica continues to be the go-to story to describe the state of the influence industry. Despite being involved in scandals that took place over four years ago, the firm remains a useful and popular starting point for understanding what we can and can't know about the involvement of private firms in political influence. In 2018, Cambridge Analytica made headlines worldwide after a whistleblower worked with investigators to unveil the company’s highly questionable strategies including a deceitful use of Facebook data from unconsenting users, its involvement in the controversial Brexit campaign during the UK referendum to leave the European Union, and its combination of psychometric profiling and digital microtargeting of the US electorate for the Donald J. Trump campaign in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

Cambridge Analytica was able to operate on behalf of some of the highest-profile political campaigns, without their methods being questioned publicly. The fact that their tactics were only revealed thanks to an internal whistleblower and a journalistic investigation indicates the lack of scrutiny of the digital campaign industry’s methods and the opacity of those methods to the wider public.

Visual showing Cambridge Analytica receiving a sum of US$16,098,994 from Republican committees

Around 60% of countries worldwide have legislation that says that a party must report their election expenses and in some cases those financial reports must be made public.. However, the data available can be difficult to access, and, if it is accessible, it may lack substantial detail.

One of the richest sources of data on US elections is the Federal Election Commission’s (FEC) Database.

The United States Federal Election Commission (FEC) maintains records of campaign finance in the US. The database provides up-to-date and detailed data on spending and donations. The database is publicly accessible through downloadable files (CSVs—files that separate data by commas and can easily be viewed in a spreadsheet or table format) or with an API—an interface that allows someone to use a computer to access the data.

The comprehensive detail in the FEC database makes it a good starting point for researching Cambridge Analytica. In particular, we used three files - one which describes the candidates, another which describes the candidate's relationship to committees, and finally one that describes the spending from committees on suppliers. All spending in elections in the US is done through committees, and so to understand the spending on a candidate we first looked at which committees had paid invoices to Cambridge Analytica and then at the relationship between that committee and any candidate they support. The records indicate a broader impact that the company had on the 2016 elections than just the reported involvement with Donald Trump’s campaign.

The filings reveal that across the full 2016 election cycle, the company invoiced a total of US$16,098,994.81 from committees. According to the database, Cambridge Analytica worked exclusively with the Republican Party or Republican Party-orientated campaigns. The firm worked with committees affiliated with the Republican Party in the categories of Presidential, Senate, House, Political Action Committee (PAC) and Super Political Action Committee elections.

yellow words on turquoise background Cambridge Analytica worked for many Republicans in House, Presidential, Senate, PAC, Super PACs but no DemocratsThe image shows the different Republican committees Cambridge Analytica worked for and demonstrates that no Democrat committees paid Cambridge Analytica.

The two largest contributors to this total were Donald J. Trump President, Inc. with $5,912,500 followed very closely by Ted Cruz's Cruz for President with $5,805,552 and the Super PAC named Make America Number 1 in third with $1,462,809.

The campaign spending filings describe some of the services and technologies Cambridge Analytica provided to its clients. The Donald J. Trump President, Inc. campaign was the least transparent, describing nearly $6,000,000.00 worth of work using only one title: "Data Management Services."

Across all campaigns, according to the records, Cambridge Analytica also provided "Micro-targeting survey research," "Data Services," "Campaign Consulting," and "Web Services" to various clients. Without more detail under these categories, it is difficult to know specifically what services Cambridge Analytica was providing—what methods they used, which techniques they employed, or whom they targeted with them.

list of services next to an old computerThe image shows the different services associated with Cambridge Analytica invoices according to the FEC database

The FEC database shows us the wide impact of Cambridge Analytica beyond the headlines. The firm earned a significant amount of money from various Republican groups and by providing a diverse set of vaguely-defined services. The exploration of the filings also shows us the partisan nature of at least some of the digital consulting industry, which prompts us to ask: how many companies are partisan and what does that mean for regulating the industry?

Even in a country with one of the most detailed government-enforced transparency systems, it still required a whistleblower to uncover the true nature of Cambridge Analytica's work. This is just one reason why we must turn to other research methods including interviews, content analysis of advertising, and visual identities of companies amongst others to gain a deeper understanding of the influence industry.

Authors: Gary Wright, 29th August 2022

With support from: Patrick Harvey, Amber Macintyre, and Christy Lange