Data Visualization: Following the Money in the Presidential Campaign

by   |   May 18, 2012 9:22 am   |   0 Comments

There’s no shortage of analysis of campaign contributions in any election cycle. Non-profit investigative news organization ProPublica decided to look at outflows of money instead—where the money raised by 2012 presidential candidates and committees actually went.

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With the rise of so-called super political action committees (PACs)—independent expenditure-only committees that can raise unlimited funds but are prohibited from coordinating with campaigns—the journalists at ProPublica also wanted to find out if there was overlap between the firms hired by campaigns and committees.

What it shows: The interactive graphic (see below) illustrates the spending of the five major presidential campaigns—Newt Gingrich, Barack Obama, Ron Paul, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum—and major super PACs from mid-2011 to February, 2012, along with the top 200 recipients of the funds.

Hovering over the campaign or committee on the left reveals a list of their biggest payees. Hovering over the payee on the right reveals the total paid to them as well as background on the firms gathered by ProPublica reporters. Some of the companies receiving money from the campaigns and PACs incorporated shortly before this election cycle and are described in detail for the first time, according to ProPublica. The data visualization also reveals several consultants working for a combination of PACs and campaigns.

Source of the data: Federal Election Commission filings for presidential contenders and super PACs, which the FEC makes available in a special delimited format (plain text data separated by commas).

What the developers did: A team of six—editors, reporters, and developers worked on the project for two weeks. They used the New York TimesCampaign Finance API to get a list of the FEC filing IDs they were interested in. Using a Ruby module called Fech (a Times library for parsing FEC data), developers grabbed all the expenditure lines from the filings. They used Google Refine to normalize payee names and loaded the clean data into a PostgreSQL database (an open source object-relational system) to uncover the 200 biggest recipients of campaign spending.

The biggest challenge was the FEC data. Developers had to filter out line items that were actually itemization details of an expenditure that had already been counted. The team verified their final numbers with the FEC, said Al Shaw, a news applications developer at ProPublica.

Key presentation choice: “We wanted to show, at a glance, that there were really a small number of consultants and media firms that most political organizations in the 2012 campaign were using, and that a few of them were using the same firms,” Shaw said. They settled on a Sankey diagram that illustrates both flow direction and quantity. Named after an Irish captain who used such a diagram to illustrate the energy efficiency of a steam engine in 1898, such charts use the width of the arrows to illustrate flow quantity.

Technical notes: To create the Sankey diagram, the developers wrote scripts for recipients, campaigns, and super PACs into a JSON (JavaScript Object Notation data-interchange format) hash—a method of indexing and retrieving items in a database using a shorter hashed key rather than its original value. They used the jQuery JavaScirpt library to create DIVs (codes that define a section in an HTML document) on each side of the graph with heights proportional to each campaign or committee’s share of money going to a particular payee. The Raphaël JavaScript library made it possible to draw flow lines with the thickness representative of each committee-payee div.

The team also used code from Tom Counsell’s Sankey library to create the snake-like curves typical of such diagrams.

Response to the work: ProPublica unveiled its graphic in March, and it was covered in a variety of media—from the Vanity Fair web site to Flowing Data. Because the examples of campaigns and super PACs sharing consultants raised questions about improper coordination, Rick Hasen, Chancellor’s Professor of Law and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine and author of the popular Election Law Blog called the data visualization and accompanying articles a “must read.”

Stephanie Overby is a Boston-based freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter: @stephanieoverby.

ProPublica’s Data Visualization

A Tangled Web: Who’s Making Money From All This Campaign Spending?
By Al Shaw, Kim Barker and Justin Elliott, ProPublica









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