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Money in Politics Never Looked So Pretty

BY Miranda Neubauer | Wednesday, September 19 2012

Net Goldman Sachs donations as an organization.

Big-money political donors often give to members of both parties, while small donors are more consistently partisan, according to new visualizations of campaign finance data.

Campaign-finance observers have known this for a while, but there's something more compelling about ... well, about seeing it. And the kind of person who has known for years about who gives and why is not the kind of person this project is trying to reach.

Video animations from Vispolitics.com illustrate patterns in political donations by members of organizations and companies. Among the organizations the team analyzed are the ACLU, Bain Capital, Goldman Sachs and the Heritage Foundation.

The animations are part of a project developed by the Northeastern Centers for Computational Social Science and Digital Humanities and LazerLAB, led by David Lazer, a professor of computer and information science and political science at Northeastern University and the Director of the Program on Networked Governance at the Harvard Kennedy School. He worked on the project with Assistant Research Professor Mauro Martino and Sasha Goodman, a post-doctoral fellow at Northeastern.

Lazer said that the partisan fluctuation of big-money donors echoes other research showing that big money contributors aren't as partisan as small money contributors, as large donors may be more interested in affecting policy outcomes and personal ties.

The research, which is based on Federal Election Commission data, also shows, for example, that Goldman Sachs employees show a "remarkable amount of bouncing back and forth," Lazer said. By comparison, members of the Heritage Foundation tend more towards Republican candidates and employees at the Harvard Business School show a more even distribution. The videos include visualizations both of contributions of individuals within the organizations, the net contributions of the entire organization, and the names of the biggest Democratic, Republican and bipartisan contributors.

Lazer's research focuses on using big data to analyze human behavior, in this case using big data to draw conclusions about politics. The project is one way of exploring how organizations provide different social contexts based on the individuals they are comprised of, Lazer said.

He noted that Goldman Sachs contributors bounced back and forth until tilting more Democratic in the mid 90s, before switching to more Republican support in the past two years. On the other hand, he said, surprisingly many Bain contributors tilt in a Democratic direction.

Presenting the research to a more general audience in a visualization form required cleaning up the data and developing algorithms to connect contributions and organizations, and to work though the different names under which companies can be identified, Lazer sad.

The team intends to publish new visualizations every week until the election. Aside from looking at donations, upcoming visualizations will also explore the role of language in politics in the context of Twitter and the debates.

The project invites others to submit suggestions on other organizations to incorporate.