From understanding political ads to seeing what your representatives are actually doing (or not doing), these short guides will help you become a more informed, more engaged, more confident voter.

Election coverage often focuses on competition between rival candidates while downplaying policies and platforms. But knowing how to decipher these “horse race” stories can help you understand what’s at stake for you and can inform your political participation.

Think about it this way: The campaigns themselves are constantly watching certain signals — polls, fundraising totals, public opinion — to understand what’s going on in their races. They adjust their tactics accordingly. You have the power to adjust your actions, too. Here are a few questions to ask.

How Competitive Is Your Congressional District?

Today, we’re going to focus on your district’s candidates for the House of Representatives using a tool called the Cook Political Report.

The Cook Political Report is a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes federal campaigns and elections to weigh the likelihood that your current representative will be able to hang onto their seat compared to the chances of a challenger defeating them. Its authors watch polls, track fundraising and outside spending, and talk to the campaigns and candidates. Then they assign a rating to the competitiveness of each race:

  • Solid (Republican or Democrat): These races are not considered competitive and are not likely to become so.
  • Likely (Republican or Democrat): These races are not considered competitive at this point, but they could tighten up.
  • Lean (Republican or Democrat): These are considered competitive races, but one party has an advantage.
  • Toss-Up: These are the most competitive; either party has a good chance of winning.

These ratings update often, though, based on what’s happening on the campaign trail. Want to know if the outlook in your district changes? You can check the Cook Political Report site.

Where Does the Campaign Money Come From?

Political organizations and nonprofit committees have spent hundreds of millions of dollars influencing elections, so candidates’ campaign finances are another illuminating metric. Where did they get all that money, and how are they spending it?

One number that can help you determine the strength of a campaign is the percentage of funds raised from PACs, or political action committees. A PAC is a collection of individuals who have pooled their money to donate to candidates. The best-funded PACs are corporations and interest groups — the NRA, Planned Parenthood and labor unions all have PACs — but they can also be funded by civically engaged folks who aren’t political operators.

A reliance on PACs, versus individual donors, can tell you something about how much the candidate is benefitting from institutional support versus grassroots support. A higher percentage of funds from PACs means a candidate’s donor money comes mostly in fairly large checks, as opposed to donations from individuals. A higher percentage of individual donations, on the other hand, is a sign of grassroots enthusiasm about the campaign.

Federal candidates have to file data about their fundraising and spending with the Federal Election Commission, the agency that enforces campaign finance law, on a regular schedule. This makes it easier to peek inside this universe.

Most campaigns file quarterly reports on April 15, July 15, Oct. 15 and Jan. 15. So the numbers here will give you a snapshot of money raised and spent within a three-month window. To start, we’ll look specifically at campaign fundraising.

Campaigns need money to get their messages out; it’s expensive to buy advertising and organize rallies, town halls and other campaign activities. Most political fundraising amounts sound like a LOT of money to me — and probably to you, too. For example, according to OpenSecrets, hundreds of millions of dollars have been poured into Pennsylvania’s senate race so far. So how do you know what those numbers mean?

That’s where the rankings come in handy: More competitive races typically attract more money. You can also look at the money gap between two candidates. If a candidate is at the lower end of the fundraising scale, particularly against a well-funded competitor, that usually indicates their chances are not great. But there are exceptions. In 2018, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in her primary despite a huge gap in fundraising. In 2020, Rep. Cori Bush defeated the 20-year (and highly funded) incumbent congressman William Lacy Clay in a major upset. So if your candidate of choice is outspent, don’t count them out.

Check on Your Local Races

There’s only so much that ProPublica can track with our data on federal candidates, but the League of Women Voters has a trove of information about candidates all the way down your ballot. The league is nonpartisan and works to arm citizens with the information they need to confidently vote.

For its project, the league reached out to every candidate running for local and state office and asked each one a set of identical questions, like:

  • What experiences qualify you to represent the citizens living in your district?
  • What would be your top three priorities if elected?
  • How will you work to increase job opportunities for your constituents?

Usually, the majority of candidates actually answer these questions in their own words because the league is such a well-known and respected resource for voters. This year, though, more and more Republican candidates are refusing to participate in league activities because they claim it is biased against Republicans, as our reporter Megan O’Matz reported early this election season. That said, the Vote411 voter guides can still help you learn about candidates and their positions, as well as any ballot measures in your area.

Another resource, Ballotpedia, also has a tool to help you understand what you’re voting for, especially on the local level. Put in your address and get information on every candidate and ballot initiative you’ll have a say on at the polls.