Roy Moore, Taco Bell, and How We Use Disclosure Data

Breaking news! Taco Bell is supporting Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. How could the home of the Doritos Locos Tacos and the Cheesy Gordita Crunch do such a thing?? The reaction by the enraged? Let’s boycott.

Obviously, Taco Bell is not supporting Roy Moore. But in many ways, this is the inevitable, absurdist conclusion of how disclosed campaign finance data is really used.

The standard justification for disclosure of political spending is that it informs citizens and voters. A voter looks up a campaign’s financial disclosures, sees they get support from donors she likes or doesn’t like, and uses that information to formulate whether to vote for the candidate.

I submit that this premise is wrong.

For a bunch of reasons. One, virtually no one takes the time to look up candidates’ political donations. Two, even when people do look them up, donors overwhelmingly give to candidates that already support their position; when voters find that information, it simply confirms their preconceived notions. The pro-choice candidate gets money from pro-choice groups, the tough-on-crime candidate gets money from police unions, and Republican candidates get money from partisan Republican donors. There are very few surprises.

Three, when we try to translate reams of disclosure data into understandable bits, the educational value is lost. Often those digging into disclosure are not voters at all, but opposition researchers or media outlets. When that happens, the goal is not to inform the public, but rather to create a narrative that (deliberately or accidentally) misinforms.

You regularly see reporting about how much “the oil industry” or “the gun lobby” or “Silicon Valley” is giving to candidates or parties. This essentially throws out all the nuance and distinction built into disclosure. “Silicon Valley” makes zero contributions because it is not a singular entity. No company in Silicon Valley makes any contribution to any federal candidate because that is prohibited by law. Adding up contributions from employees and PACs of firms in a various industry (the two sources that can donate to candidates) often makes for misleading, incorrect, or downright bizarre conclusions. This Newsweek article, for example, unabashedly implies that both Republican efforts to repeal Obamacare and Democratic efforts to stop the repeal are funded by Big Pharma and the healthcare industry – all based on aggregated campaign finance data.

Compounding these issues is growing confusion over the proper way to report on donations to super PACs. If an individual working for Exxon gives $75,000 to a super PAC that, in turn, donates $50,000 to a different local super PAC that independently runs ads costing $12,000 each supporting three local candidates, including Bob Smith, how much money did the “oil industry” give to Bob Smith? This hypothetical scenario, as difficult to sort out as it is, is still a simplified version of how the actual economy of political ads and contributions functions.

Which brings us back to Taco Bell. Even when news reports correctly and diligently acknowledge the mind-numbingly complicated nuance underlying disclosure information, readers cannot help but see stories with partisan blinders.

In this case, The Daily Beast reported on donors supporting a super PAC[1] running ads in Alabama in support of Roy Moore. One of those donors (who gave $15,000[2]) was Nicholas Peters of Tampa, Florida. Peters listed his employer (as mandated in campaign finance rules) as Prometheus Management IV, LLC. Prometheus Management is a private equity firm headed by CEO Nicholas Peters that invests in restaurants. According to its website in 2013, Prometheus was a franchisee for Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and IHOP.

Presumably because it is a colorful detail in an otherwise boring story about campaign finance data, The Daily Beast includes this fact, describing Peters as “a Florida-based businessman whose chain of Taco Bell franchises has also donated to the campaign of Omar Navarro.” (N.B. Taco Bell didn’t donate to Navarro either.)

To sum up: A super PAC running ads in Alabama supporting Roy Moore received $15,000 from a donor who happens to be CEO of a private equity firm that invests in restaurant franchises, including some Taco Bells.

Q.E.D. (at least for some readers of The Daily Beast) Taco Bell is supporting Roy Moore.

In this case, efforts have been made to correct the misconception (though, here too, Snopes conflates corporate spending with individual and PAC contributions). And the organizers of a Facebook protest of Taco Bell for their alleged support of Roy Moore appear to have gotten the message this time (as of now, the Facebook post has been removed). Nonetheless, a dedicated group of anti-Moore progressives on Facebook continue to believe that the money from their Gorditas is supporting Roy Moore.

While this may be a funny example of how disclosure can feed fake news, this is just another (if somewhat extreme) case of the flaws inherent in almost all campaign finance reporting. The end result is that nearly every reader and voter believes some fact, big or small, about political spending that is simply not true.

[1] The treasurer of this super PAC, Proven Conservative PAC, is attorney Paul Jossey. Jossey is also an Adjunct Fellow at the Institute for Free Speech. The Institute for Free Speech has no affiliation with Proven Conservative PAC.

[2] Peters contributed $5,000 in his name and $5,000 each through two LLCs, Atlantic Bells and Clearwater Office Real Estate.

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