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November 2, 2016

Data Visualizations Follow the Campaign Money

George Leopold

(hafakot/Shutterstock)

The cottage industry of political polling is approaching a fever pitch at the end of a long, tortuous U.S. presidential campaign. However, a better metric for gauging whom will win next Tuesday’s (Nov. 8) election may be “following the money,” as in which candidate is attracting the most political donations and from whom?

Among those tracking big- and small-money donors to the Clinton and Trump presidential campaigns is San Francisco-based MapD Technologies Inc., which said this week it has crunched U.S. data on campaign contributions back to 2001 to assemble visualizations of political funding trends.

Using the familiar Red State (Republican)/Blue State (Democratic) designations, the San Francisco-based developer of a parallel SQL database running on GPUs said it parsed contributions from individual big and small donors, political action committees and emerging mobile donation platforms. Those contributions ranged from less than $200 up to $19 million. MapD said it used data gathered by the U.S. Federal Elections Commission (FEC), and its algorithm factored for historic changes in the political landscape such as the landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission.

Efforts to analyze political contributions such as the MapD visualizations and the OpenSecrets.org website at the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics seek to give meaning to the raw data collected by the FEC. While the OpenSecrets site is considered the “gold standard” for tracking political contributions and divining what donors expect in return, MapD asserted its “ability to visualize, sort, dashboard and interact with the data makes the stories within come alive.”

Among the startup’s findings are that smaller donations from a larger pool of donors—a kind of Kickstarter for political campaigns—may be reshaping political giving. A mobile tool called ActBlue credited with nearly crashing FEC servers during the 2014 election cycle allows both subscription and “micro-giving.” MapD concluded that the mobile platform “has transformed the game for Democratic candidates….”

It cited funding totals for presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont who raised more than $200 million during this year’s Democratic primaries. The vast majority of ActBlue contributions were in small increments averaging $26. (According to the analytics firm, the Clinton campaign built its own platform for processing donations.)

The rise of ActBlue and other micro-giving platforms promises to shakeup the U.S. political landscape that has largely relied on big-dollar donations from wealthy individuals or SuperPACs. For example, Hillary Clinton’s two fund-raising operations have each raised more than $280 million. The Democratic SuperPAC established by President Barack Obama has so far raised an estimated $158 million, MapD found, with individual donations averaging about $136,000.

In more ways than one, Donald Trump is considered a “political outlier” when it comes to fundraising. While promising to spend upwards of $100 million of his own money, the Republican candidate has so far raised about $65 million. Despite the shortfall, the MapD tracker found that Trump has succeeded in tapping into smaller, mostly rural donors across the country making individual campaign contributions under $200.

While Trump has so far raised $4 million less than 2012 Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the MapD visualization of 2016 campaign donations reveals that Trump has expanded the map of political donors while “tapping into a constituency that had not given in previous cycles.”

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