Follow the Money: Political Donations in America
Down the stretch they go. While the race continues to tighten this week, one thing is pretty certain - it will be over next week.
What is obscured in the vitriol, the accusations and the gaffes, however, is that money still fuels the American political process. Despite the emergence of a billionaire candidate, this cycle is no different - the money is as prevalent as ever. Citizens United remains the law of the land and both parties are hip to the game despite rhetoric to the contrary.
And so we take the covers off a new version of our immensely popular political donations demo.
This time we took it up a notch - covering 101M records dating back to 2001. We included everything, from the micro-donations to the multi-million dollar donations.
While this dataset is very rich (the $200 donations in particular), we need to caution that it does not represent ground truth.
Ground truth in political donations is surprisingly elusive and even with the FEC data, there will be figures that differ from other published sources. We think OpenSecrets is the gold standard, but our ability to visualize, sort, dashboard and interact with the data makes the stories within come alive.
And let’s be clear, there are thousands of stories in this data.
Presidential candidates, Senate candidates, House candidates, Committees, SuperPACs and Corporations. We could write for pages - but part of what makes our platform so compelling is that you can explore these massive datasets with millisecond latency, finding stories, discovering insights and creating your own narrative.
This blog post will concentrate on the most recent cycle and hit on some high points, but again, the real opportunity is in finding those things that interest you. Our intuitive interface lets you build whatever dashboard or view that you would like and to share it on social media.
We will kick off this cycle starting on December 1, 2014. We could start anywhere, but after Republicans took control of the Senate in the last cycle, operatives on both sides set their sights on 2016 and so that is where we will begin.
One extra touch we have included is to color contributors, committees and PACs with the color of their political leanings. This doesn't always work, as some organizations are truly balanced or at least not overwhelmingly skewed in one direction or another. The National Association of Retailers is an example. Our standard was as follows - if the organization gave 70% to single party or candidate, we colored them by that party's designation. So PrioritiesUSA is blue for Democrat. American Crossroads is red for Republican. Sometimes we couldn't determine that so they remain Unknown (green-ish).
To orient yourself it is often easiest to start in your hometown. As the great Tip O’Neill once said, all politics is local, and it is through this lens that you can understand how the different content elements work and what it looks like on a relative basis.
Here is our hometown, San Francisco, in the 2016 cycle. We are going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Hillary will win this neighborhood:
Here (or better yet your own hometown) you can explore with exceptional granularity - friends, relatives, neighbors all displayed over a Mapbox basemap.
Small Dollars = Lots of Donors
While the big dollars are the ones that attract the news stories, it is the little dollars that make our demo sing. We were able to capture all donation sizes and attribute them to their ultimate location. This is important because many of them show up originally as ActBlue contributions.
Unknown to many Americans, Act Blue famously broke the FEC’s servers in the 2014 campaign and have almost doubled in size since. Their mobile-friendly technology platform (the Republicans don’t have a parallel) enables both subscription giving and micro-giving and has transformed the game for Democratic candidates across the land.
Bernie Sanders used the platform to raise more than $200M this cycle (the Clinton campaign built their own platform for processing donations) - the vast majority of it in small ($26 average) increments. The long term impacts, however, are what are most interesting to political strategists as these highly progressive, engaged donors are now part of the ActBlue community, representing an exceptional resource going forward.
You can find those donations by applying a filter in the upper left corner.
As a quick test, figure out how much Bernie raised in $200 or less donations. Is it more or less than Donald Trump raised?
Big Dollars = Select Few
While Bernie eschewed the big money donations and made history doing it, Hillary opted for a few select stops on her fundraising tour.
Hillary has vastly outraised her opponent, drawing on years of relationships and a highly loyal political machine.
Hillary’s two main vehicles are the Hillary Victory Fund and Hillary Clinton for President. Both of which top $280M in amounts raised, both of which exceed the amount Trump has raised.
Additionally, she benefits directly from Priorities USA, a PAC started reluctantly by Obama supporters to counter Karl Rove’s American Crossroads. The team at Priorities proved quick studies and funded some of the most devastating television ads of the 2012 campaign.
Priorities goes big. They led all fundraising for $50K donations or larger - pulling down $158M in big checks (and only $3M in smaller donations). Their average donation was $136K. That is 5,230 times more than Bernie Sanders.
That haul was led by Hedge Fund Billionaire Donald Sussman’s $19M. He was helped by another Hedge Fund Billionaire George Soros, Fred Eychaner, several Prizker’s and Daniel Abraham of SlimFast fame.
Trump is a political outlier in a number of ways (good or bad depending on your perspective) and his ability to raise funds is no different. He promised to spend $100M on his campaign and while he won’t make that number, he has ponied up $65M as of today. He would still be well shy of Democrat Tom Steyer who has donated more than $70M of his own money.
Ultimately, however, the vast majority of his funds have come from smaller, rural donors. In the process has expanded the playing field for Republicans - tapping into a constituency that had not given in previous cycles.
Compare this map of sub $200 donations from 2016
with the one from 2012
Based on this map you would likely think that Trump out-raised Romney by a considerable amount.
He raised around $4M less than Romney.
What he did do was dramatically expand the map. Romney did much of his work in the major metropolitan areas - there is density in those locations that we can drill into but on a national level is obscured. Trump, on the other hand, did his work in the countryside with people who either did not give or were not engaged politically before his candidacy.
We will have to see how this translates on the 8th.
One place that Trump didn’t connect was Silicon Valley. Granted the Bay Area hasn’t produced much for Republicans in recent cycles but ultimately there is drought and there is drought.
Here is Trump’s map for 2016:
Here is Romney’s
Romney pulled 60X more money from Silicon Valley than did Trump.
You can determine this by zooming in on the bay area and moving the slider on the dates.
Much has been made of the move down ticket for those Republican donors unwilling to sign onto the Trump train.
This is actually very difficult to quantify. Different economic environments in different states with different candidates.
Perhaps more importantly, there is the Pre-K, Post-K issue. For those with only a passing familiarity to political fundraising, the K represents Koch. The Koch organization (which includes an extensive list of like-minded Republican donors) has transformed political donations in the post-Citizen’s United landscape, creating a byzantine structure of political organizations that contribute to free-market, libertarian-leaning, conservative candidates and causes.
The Koch’s were just getting started the last time these Senators ran for office but in the intervening years they have created a political machine that some feel eclipses the Republican Party in its ability to raise funds, master technology and win elections.
You can check out their work under Freedom Partners and Americans for Prosperity or one of the affiliate organizations (which are already out of date).
Back to the down ticket argument for Republicans.
It is not really there. Right now compared to the last Presidential cycle non-presidential spending is running 15% behind 2012. When all is said and done it may end up flat, but right now, they have a few hundred million to go.
Having said that there is about $400M more in this cycle for House and Senate races than 2014 - an increase of 29%
Again, these insights are not even scratching the surface.
Whether you are a political strategist or an arm chair pundit you have the parallel processing power of a small supercomputer to crunch through these 100M+ records in milliseconds.
So go forth and find your story in this data. We can’t wait to see your stories on twitter, facebook and anywhere else they might appear.
If you have questions, don't hesitate to drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org or hit us up on social media.