Election Money and Data

Posted by Alex Slotnick on Aug 10, 2015 11:22:00 AM

So far, the early drama of the 2016 presidential race has been more silly than substantial. Donald Trump has been a (successful?!) one-man show, Hillary has been playing coy, some candidates have been getting trolled (much to Reddit’s delight), and, this week, Fox News has announced its first Republican debate line-up, which somehow seems more akin to the guest list for a popular 7th grader’s slumber party than presidential grooming. But there’s been one topic of conversation that’s been deadly serious and that is sure to stay on people’s minds: campaign finance.

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Incredibly vast sums of money are now flowing in anticipation of next November, and it’s the entire country’s concern where that cash comes from, where it’s going, how it’s being spent, and how it’s being tracked. Data fans, now’s your time to heed Jack’s advice: help your fellow citizens stay afloat in this ocean of information. At VividCortex, we understand how suffocating a vast data field can seem if an analyst doesn’t have the proper tools for navigation. And this, a presidential election, is a time when it’s absolutely vital to the public’s interest that data be both tracked and clearly understood.

In 2010, the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC codified new rules for how donors can contribute to campaigns: basically, Super PACs are free to grow, without limit. Now, Americans’ eyes are on the funds. And that means watching data and databases. The New York Times has been publishing extensive reports and timelines that make some of that information visual and legible for the average reader.

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But that’s hardly cutting edge. For instance, this 2009 post from R-bloggers used MySQL and R to track and visualize the progression of contributions to Obama’s first campaign.

For more current, granular reports, any user can go directly to the source: the Federal Election Commission’s website, where all campaign finance info is made public. Below are snippets of Clinton and Bush’s individual campaign finance report cards. (Or you can try a search yourself.)

Clinton’s Finance Report Card Summary

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Bush’s Finance Report Card Summary

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The info on the Super PACs themselves is more complicated. Here’s the list of “Independent Expenditure-Only Committees.” They’re technically independent of any individual candidate, but the nuances of that technicality is another controversial topic. Regardless, they hold most of the money. Want to see for yourself? Take a look at the mid-year report for Right to Rise, the PAC that supports Bush, the candidate currently supported by the most funds. The report is 1,656 pages long. Everything really is bigger in Texas – even the data.

This is why we consider it crucial that data not just be collected, but also managed, streamlined, and presented in a way that it can be understood. We Americans might consider it self-evident that all people are created equal, but here at VividCortex it’s also obvious that not all data are created that way: some pieces of information are more valuable than others. Sometimes, within 1,656 pages, all you’re really looking for is a paragraph, a sentence, a word, or a single number next to a dollar sign. And at times like this, DBA’s aren’t the only people who need to understand what big data means.

Be on the lookout for more VividCortex posts on Databases and Democracy and candidate finances in the future – the campaign season is just getting started.

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