Common Campaign Finance Terms

The money in state politics can be confusing to navigate, especially when the terminology itself is unfamiliar. Here are some of the campaign finance terms and phrases that you’re likely to encounter on Transparency USA, and how we use them in the context of our data. 


Advocacy group – a private organization that advocates for specific policies or for the interests of a certain group. They may seek to influence or educate the public or policy makers about particular issues or issue sets. They include lobbyists, business leagues, non-profit organizations, and other types of entities. Advocacy groups are constitutionally allowed to speak out on causes and issues as well as about candidates and elected officials.

Aggregated unitemized contributions total donations collected by some candidates in which the individual donations or the total contributed by an individual during an election cycle is below a certain threshold requiring a detailed, itemized campaign finance report entry. The threshold for an unitemized contribution varies from state to state.

Battleground race – competitive election races that are poised to potentially shift or have a major influence in the balance of electoral power within a jurisdiction. Ballotpedia.org also cites races that are particularly competitive or compelling, in addition to having a potential weight to electoral balance, as battleground races.

Bipartisan – a descriptor for policies, proposals, coalitions, and organizations that relates to cooperation or participation between both major parties.

Bundling – the practice of rounding up contributions for a candidate or set of candidates from friends and/or associates by a person or interest group.

Campaign finance – the overall practice and regulation of campaigns and the money that runs through them. Campaign finance can relate to contributions, expenditures, and loans that are given or received by candidates, campaigns, or PACs.

Candidate – an individual who has run for elected office and has campaign finance data associated with their name. On Transparency USA, this term is a broad identifier that distinguishes an individual person from a PAC or other entity, and includes current officeholders, those currently running for office, and anyone who has run in the past and filed associated campaign finance reports. (For example, a person who lost a state senate race in 2018 would still be categorized as a candidate on TUSA, even though they are not currently running or serving in elected office.)

Challenger – an individual seeking an elected office that they currently do not hold. This term is often used to distinguish those candidates attempting to oust the incumbent.

Conduit PAC – a political action committee that receives monetary contributions of money for another candidate or committee. Conduits release the money to the intended candidate committee or PAC at the discretion of the donor, and may not modify the recipient or amount donated.

Contribution – a receipt of financial support for a campaign, candidate, or committee, contributed by a campaign, candidate, committee, business, union, or individual. Contributions can be made in the forms of both direct monetary contributions, indirect contributions through independent expenditures, or the donation of goods and services to a candidate or campaign.

Dark Money – a negative term used to describe spending by individuals, businesses, and civic organizations who are not required to disclose the names of their donors.

Donor the person, group, or committee which contributes to a candidate or committee.

Doxxing the act of releasing private information about an individual on the internet, often for malicious purposes. Doxxing typically involves the release of directly identifying private information, rather than just general information that is unknown to the public. Examples include the release of telephone numbers, home addresses, private contact information, or other private identifying details.

Election Cycle – the period immediately preceding an election in which a candidate or committee raises money and makes political expenditures. Transparency USA organizes data by a standardized election cycle definition to make it easier for users to view trends across multiple cycles. When users select an election cycle, they are viewing data from a two-year time period that includes the year of the election and the year immediately preceding the election year. The 2020 election cycle, for example, includes all campaign finance transactions that were reported between 1/1/2019 and 12/31/2020 in that state.

Entity – an entity refers to someone other than an individual contributor which makes a campaign contribution or receives funds through political expenditures. An entity is a broad term that can refer to a committee, business, group, or union, which cannot be classified as an individual.

Expenditure – a payment by a candidate or committee. Expenditures include payment made for goods or services, as well as donations made to another candidate or committee. 

Federal PACs – political action committees that are registered with the Federal Election Commission. These committees file their campaign finance reports with the federal government and are not generally required to file individual reports with state regulating authorities. Federal PACs are restricted by federal campaign finance rules, rather than state regulations. Federal PACs often appear on state-level campaign finance reports as donors, and are labeled as federal PACs on Transparency USA to differentiate them from the PACs regulated by state reporting requirements. 

Flip – an instance in which an office or majority in a governing body that was occupied by one party changes to the other party. This term can also refer to instances in which states or counties vote for a candidate of one party after supporting a candidate of a different party in the preceding election. (i.e. Will the Texas House flip from red to blue?)

General Election the regular election in which candidates are elected to office after winning the nominations of their parties. Distinguished from both primary elections, and non-standard elections including special or runoff elections. Typically, a general election is held in November.

General Interest Organization – an organization that works to promote the interests of all citizens and not any one group in particular.

In-kind contributions – donations made to a candidate or committee which are non-monetary. These include contributions of goods and services by a business, individual, or another committee in support of the recipient candidate or committee.

Incumbent – the person currently holding an elected office. During an election, the incumbent is more specifically a current officeholder seeking reelection and distinguishable from challengers.

Independent Expenditures – also known as “Direct Expenditures” in some states, these are expenditures to advocate for election or defeat of a candidate in a campaign, but they cannot be coordinated with any candidate.

Individual Prospect – on Transparency USA, this term is used to identify the individuals or entities that have a prospective contract with Texas lobbyists, with no confirmed record of payment. Because prospective compensation is the primary record of the money in Texas lobbying, lobbyist clients are labeled according to their prospective status as reported by lobbyists.

Legislative Session – the period in which a state’s legislature or assembly meets. In each state, the legislature is given a period of time to meet for a regular session, while some states allow special legislative sessions to be called during periods in which the legislature is not scheduled to meet for their regular sessions.

Lobbyist – a paid advocate who works to influence government decisions related to a particular industry or issue. Lobbyists are regulated by the state.

Lobbyist Client – an individual, entity, or government agency which hires a lobbyist for a legislative session.

Minimum Reporting Threshold a contribution or expenditure level under which campaigns or committees are not required to file campaign finance activity reports. This threshold varies from state to state.

Nonpartisan a descriptor typically applied to organizations which claim to hold no political bias or partisanship benefitting any particular ideology or political affiliation. Nonpartisan can also refer more specifically to an organization that is not legally affiliated with a particular political party. 

Open Seat – a race for elected office in which there is no incumbent running.

Partisan – a descriptor typically applied to organizations that hold a political bias to benefit one particular ideology or political affiliation. Partisan can also refer more specifically to an organization that is legally affiliated with a particular political party.

Payee – an individual or entity which receives money through a political expenditure made by a candidate or committee.

Personal Activity campaign activity generated from candidates’ personal accounts, rather than political campaign accounts.

Political Action Committee (PAC) – a group that is formed to raise and spend money to elect or defeat candidates. The specific goals of PACs vary. Often, they support political campaigns of people who are likely to make decisions that would benefit the group’s interests. Candidate PACs are the campaign finance vehicle used to raise money directly on behalf of a candidate, while a conduit PAC is a platform that can connect donors with candidates they wish to support.

Primary Election – an election held by a party to determine the party’s nominees for the general election.

Reporting Period – a time period outlined by a campaign finance authority for which candidates must collect detailed records of contributions and expenditures.

Special Interest – an organization or group of organizations that work to promote the interests of members of the group. Special interests often hire lobbyists to persuade those in government to enact policies or spend money on projects that benefit the group directly.

State-Level Politics – electoral and legislative activity at the state level, distinguishable from federal or municipal political activity. State-level campaign finance data includes all entities under a state-level financial authority, including activity related to statewide officeholders, members of the legislature, and judicial candidates.

Statewide Officeholders – elected officials who are elected to represent entire statewide constituencies rather than individual regional constituencies, such as districts or precincts.

SuperPAC – also known as Independent Expenditures Only Committee, a superPAC is subject to fewer restrictions and can spend unlimited amounts supporting or opposing candidates, but they cannot directly donate to or coordinate their expenditures with candidates or parties.

Taxpayer-Funded Lobbying – the practice of using public funds to lobby the government, usually asking for more money, thus requiring higher taxes.

Term Limit – a restriction on the number of times a person can be re-elected to the same office.

501(c)(3) – organizations that are deemed under federal tax law to be charities, private foundations, or private operating foundations. These organizations cannot participate in political activities.

501(c)(4) – organizations that are deemed social welfare organizations under federal tax law. While “social welfare” is not precisely defined by the IRS, the organizations generally may work to promote the good of a community or group of people. These groups, unlike 501(c)3 organizations, may participate in legislative and civic activities.

527 Group – A tax-exempt group organized under section 527 of the Internal Revenue Code to raise money for political activities. 527 groups can raise unlimited funds from individuals, corporations or labor unions, but they must disclose their contributions and expenditures.

Looking for something that’s not here yet? Let us know at editors@transparencyusa.org. This list will continue to develop over time.