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Political influence by county: A new way to look at campaign finance data

by and and

Some 30 percent of all the money raised in last year's presidential election came from just 10 of the nation's more than 3,000 counties, all of them in major metropolitan areas. But a high proportion of multi-millionaires placed a couple of sparsely populated Wyoming counties among the last election cycle's highest per-capita givers.

These are just a few of the interesting patterns of political influence that the Sunlight Foundation is beginning to uncover from a partnership with a Philadelphia-based firm that specializes in mapping and geo-spatial analysis. Over the summer, we worked together to create location-based analyses of the federal campaign finance data displayed on Influence Explorer. The partnership produced new and more accurate ways to identify trends in political spending through the power of data vizualization.

The maps displayed here are just a taste of what our partnership produced, and in large part are the result of a very good preliminary analysis done by Lena Ferguson, an Azavea Fellow. More analyses will follow.

Total contributions from individuals over time

Use the scroll at the bottom of the map to see the results for different years.
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The above map depicts the total contributions to PACs and candidates from individuals in each county across the country from 1990 to 2012.

Contributions per capita in each county

Use the scroll at the bottom of the map to see the results for different years. [Embed this map.]

The next map shows the giving per capita. The total sum of campaign contributions has been divided by the population of each county to show how much money is represented by each person in each county. Doing this analysis shows how each dollar spent on political campaigns in a county is weighted. For instance, $149 million in campaign contributions came from the county of Los Angeles in the 2012 election cycle. With 9.9 million people living there, that translates to about $15 spent per person. In counties with small populations but big political givers, such as Wyoming's Teton and Sublette counties, each dollar spent is weighted heavier for the people living there. Teton county has about 21,000 people in it, including Joe Ricketts and Foster Friess—two people known for large political contributions. In 2012, close to $10 million in federal contributions from individuals came out of Teton county or about $454 per person. Individuals in Sublette County—a county with a population of just over 10,000 and includes hefty contributions from Ricketts as well—gave $12.8 million to federal politics in 2012 or a whopping $1,234 per person.

Third-party presidential giving

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The orange-hued map shows the percentage of presidential campaign giving in each county that went to third party candidates. In New Mexico, where 2012 Libertarian Party presidential candidate Gary Johnson once served as governor, at least 50 percent of presidential contributions from four counties went to third party candidates. A similar pattern is visible in number of counties in the northeastern part of the United States. Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein lives in Massachusetts.

According to the preliminary analysis done by Azavea's Ferguson, the five counties that gave the most money to third party candidates 2012 were Los Angeles County, Calif., Washington D.C., Franklin County, Ill., New York County, N.Y., King County, Wash. and Bernadillo, N.M.

Contribution share by major political party

Use the scroll at the bottom of the map to see the results for different years. [Embed this map.]

The blue and red map shows which party received a majority share of contributions from each county during presidential elections dating back to 1992. What's shown here is a shift in giving over time to the challenging party when an incumbent is running. The map highlights another intriguing pattern: When it comes to political donations, counties in the middle of the country tend to solidly favor either Democrats or Republicans, while the counties on the East and West Coasts tend to be more even-handed in their political giving patterns. This could be related to the amount of money given, or the number of people in a county doing the giving.

In addition to being able to visualize political giving on a map, we also learned of trends through the geocoding process that were otherwise hard to identify. For instance, the Azavea analysis dramatically illustrated the geographic concentration of political giving. The 10 counties that Azavea identified as responsible for 30 percent of all money individuals contributed to political campaigns in the last election cycle were:

  1. New York County, N.Y.
  2. Washington, D.C.
  3. Los Angeles County, Calif.
  4. Cook County, Ill.
  5. Clark County, Nev.
  6. Harris County, Texas
  7. Fairfield County, Conn.
  8. Dallas County, Texas
  9. Middlesex County, Mass .
  10. Palm Beach County, Fla.

The maps and findings shown here are just the tip of a data vizualization iceberg. Now that we've got our Influence Explorer data geocoded, more analyses will be possible -- and not just by Sunlight. In the coming months, we'll be making the geocoded data able on Influence Explorer and Data.InfluenceExplorer.com. It will be available for download as well.

Download the data (csv, 1.6MB)

Maps by Ben Chartoff and Bob Lannon

Geo-spatial coding and analysis by Lena Ferguson

Special thanks to Tom MacWright and the MapBox team for their support!