05 February 2010

The Contributions Cloud

It's well established I have a thing for text clouds (and wordle) - particularly in a political context. Cloud generators are neat tools - but if you know how to apply those tools you can generate some interesting questions. I first learned about the idea on Americablog, when I saw a cloud of a State Of the Union Address. Since then I've used cloud generators to compare speeches between different political figures, and even to compare groups of bloggers in different online communities.

But what if you could use a cloud generator to measure influence - not only in a specific conversation, but in a series of political decisions? If you believe that political contributions have some semblance of influence on a politician, and you believe that the more one contributes the more influence one has, a cloud generator might be an interesting tool. I decided to give it a try. Again, I should stress that I use clouds to generate and guide questions, not necessarily conclusions. Here's what I did:

1) I went to opensecrets.org to get the "top 20" campaign contributors for the most recent campaign cycle available for my two Senators - Richard Burr and Kay Hagan. (I'm not trying to make a political statement. Readers may recall I used them as examples in my idea for C-SPAN.)

2) I went to wordle and for every $1000 donated I entered the name of the contributor in the text box. I removed spaces from the names of donors to make sure it showed up as a single word. So if "Guy Smiley" contributed $10,000 to Senator Hagan, I would have entered "GuySmiley" 10 times.

3) I messed with the fonts and layout and stuff to get a cloud that looked spiffy.

Some caveats - Senator Hagan was "in cycle," and Senator Burr wasn't - so Senator Hagan raised a ton more money. Also, here's the disclaimer from Open Secrets:
This table lists the top donors to this candidate in the 2009 - 2010 election cycle. The organizations themselves did not donate, rather the money came from the organization's PAC, its individual members or employees or owners, and those individuals' immediate families. Organization totals include subsidiaries and affiliates.
So let's get to it. Here's the "Contributions Cloud" for Senator Burr:

And here's the cloud for Senator Hagan:

At first blush it looks like Senator Burr got his campaign cash from mostly corporate sources while Senator Hagan got hers from, well, Act Blue and Emily's list. (those basically indistinguishable dots in Senator Hagan's cloud are mostly labor unions and a few progressive PAC's.)

Again, Senator Burr wasn't in cycle and wasn't doing a lot of aggressive fundraising, so I'm not sure it's fair to jump to a bunch of conclusions for him. It may make more sense to do this with House candidates, who are always in cycle. But I do think Senator Hagan's cloud is rather telling - The amount of money she raised from individuals online absolutely dwarfs everything else. Technically, ActBlue is a Political Action Committee - but essentially it's an online portal used by progressive Americans to donate to political candidates at virtually every level.

Do the people who contribute money to candidates through Act Blue speak with one voice? Hard to say, though there's no doubt they skew left. But the most important question that comes to my mind is this: Are the Democrats now this dependent on the online channel for campaign finance?

Discuss... ;)

No comments: