COMM 273D | Fall 2014

Tuesday, October 28

Campaign Cash Check

The American democratic process generates loads of interesting data and insights for us to examine, including who is financing political campaigns.


  • Polling and pollsters
  • Following the campaign finance money
  • Competitive U.S. Senate races


  • Analyze a Senate race's campaign spending Due by next class

Jump to the full details on homework assignments

In 2014, it's pretty much assured that the Republicans will control the House. However, it is increasingly likely that they will win enough seats to control the Senate. In 2002, the Republicans controlled both chambers of Congress until losing control of both to the Democrats in 2006. In 2010, the Republicans won control of the House and control of Congress has since remained split.

In class, we will focus on the six closest U.S. Senate races as a lens to examine the characteristics of campaign finance in closely watched political battles.

The chart below is courtesy of the New York Times Upshot Senate Model and contains predictions of the Senate races, as of October 28:


Campaign Finance in 2014

One of the compelling topics of this decade is the influence of outside money. The Citizens United decision by the Supreme Court effectively allowed Super PACs and non-profits to be unrestricted in the amount of money they received in contributions and spent on political activities. The caveat is that they cannot work directly with political candidates or other political action committees. The money from non-profits is sometimes referred to as "dark money" because they do not have to disclose the identity of their donors.

The FEC guide on Coordinated Communications and Independent Expenditures

When an individual or political committee pays for a communication that is coordinated with a candidate or party committee, the communication is considered an in-kind contribution to that candidate or party committee and is subject to the limits, prohibitions and reporting requirements of the federal campaign finance law.

An independent expenditure is an expenditure for a communication "expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate that is not made in cooperation, consultation, or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, a candidate’s authorized committee, or their agents, or a political party or its agents." 11 CFR 100.16(a).

Mystery Money: Your Guide to Campaign Finance in 2014 by Rebecca Ballaus for the Wall Street Journal

If you ask the Federal Election Commission, no outside group has spent more money on the 2014 election than a Democratic super PAC called the Senate Majority PAC. The super PAC has spent about $30 million this election, according to official fundraising reports filed with the Federal Election Commission…Yet Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group spending money on behalf of Republican candidates this cycle, says it has spent $50 million on advertisements alone.

Via the WSJ reporting:

Name of group What FEC Shows What They Actually Spent
Americans for Prosperity $400,000 $50 million*
Crossroads GPS $4.7 million $18.7 million**
U.S. Chamber of Commerce $23 million $30 million
    • Americans for Prosperity has spent $50 million on ads alone. The group has also spent money on other efforts, but did not disclose that number.
  • ** This figure includes $14 million on issue ads run this summer.

The WSJ article has an example of an "independent expenditure" ad – one that explicitly supports or opposes a candidate, and an example of an "issues ad" – which can't directly advocate support for a particular candidate.

An independent expenditure ad advocating against Thom Tillis by the Senate Majority PAC:

An issues ad by the Americans for Prosperity attacking the "runaway spending" purportedly endorsed by Sen. Kay Hagan:

The Super PAC not associated with Stephen Colbert

For the 2012 election, Stephen Colbert organized the "Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow" Super PAC and raised more than $1 million in contributions.

In 2011 during the Iowa straw poll, Colbert's super PAC ran ads in support of "Rick Parry", which did not result in FEC disclosures, possibly, as the Sunlight Foundation speculates, because he ran them for a non-existent candidate (as opposed to Rick Perry).

When Colbert announced his run for presidency, he handed over control of the super PAC to Jon Stewart and changed the super PAC's purported name to "The Definitely Not Coordinated With Stephen Colbert Super PAC."

Soon afterwards, the non-Colbert-influenced Super PAC ran Romney attack ads in South Carolina:

Investigative stories with campaign finance

The Federal Election Commission's Citizen Guide is a good place to start, as it lists a few of the reasons why it's important for campaign finance data to be public.

State-level campaign finance

Campaign finance laws missing teeth and transparency by Mike Mullen for State Integrity Blog:

In some states, like New York, it's the lack of oversight, enforcement and transparency that soil the campaign system. New York received a 'D-' in the political financing category, with reporter David King finding that the Empire State has adequate limits on donations, but a systemic lack of government supervision and public access on the process. "New York penalizes for late filings, but not for donating over limits," King writes, explaining the state's 0 percent score on indicator No. 45. "Former Sen. Pedro Espada had a long, almost comical, history of flaunting campaign finance law, he missed multiple filings for multiple committees under his name, and racked up over tens-of thousands of dollars in fines but was never prosecuted or investigated for it."

Money ‘speaks’: S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell’s PAC doled out big money in campaign donations, contracts

Bobby Harrell’s Palmetto Leadership Council has channeled about a half-million dollars in the last four years to the S.C. House Republican Caucus, to the state Republican Party and to more than 130 mostly incumbent Republican candidates for legislative office, according to publicly filed data analyzed by The Post and Courier.

This reporter helped take down South Carolina’s most powerful lawmaker

In the spring of 2012, Dudley, then 26, penned her first big report on Bobby’s world. The story was an investigative report about a big-money political action committee linked to the Speaker, and how he used it to consolidate and wield power in the House. Her piece raised questions about conflicts of interest, including whether it was proper for one lawmaker to accept $123,000 in payment to his communications firm from “the Speaker’s PAC.” The deeply researched piece examined years of campaign finance data and federal flight logs to demonstrate how Harrell had reimbursed himself more than $300,000 from his campaign account, with much of it going to operate a private airplane he piloted between the Statehouse in Columbia and his home on the coast.

"Dark money"

Dark Money Rises, by Michael Scherer for ProPublica and TIME.

This sort of thing has been happening a lot this year in House and Senate races around the country. Candidates have found their modest war chests, filled with checks for $2,500 or less, swamped by outside groups, which have no limits on the donations they can collect. In all, more than $800 million was spent through mid-October on election ads by outside groups, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Of that total, nearly 1 in 4 dollars is so-called dark money, meaning the identities of the donors remain a secret. Voters watching TV, listening to the radio or receiving direct-mail appeals know only the names of the front organizations that bought the ads, names that range from the well known (U.S. Chamber of Commerce) to the anodyne (Government Integrity Fund) to the borderline absurd (America Is Not Stupid).

Spending by outside groups is nothing new in American politics. The Willie Horton ad attacking Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign was paid for by an outside group, as were the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth spots that skewered John Kerry in 2004. But in the past two years, American politics has been transformed by a surge in spending. One fact tells the story: Explicit political-ad spending by outside groups in 2012 is on track to double the combined total spent by outside groups in each of the four elections since 2002.

This section covers two relevant parts of the FEC site: detailed campaign spending and contribution records for each candidate, and, the Senate Independent Expenditures listing.

Getting records directly associated with a candidate

  1. Find out who these two sets of candidates are:
  • The two top candidates in your state's 2014 Senate race
  • The two top candidates in your state's 2008 Senate race
  1. Start off with the 2014 House and Senate Campaign Finance map and do a search for your candidate's name.


  2. This will bring up results that match that name. Select the record that matches your actual candidate:


  3. The Candidate Details page will show a financial summary of how much money the candidate has received and spent for this election cycle. Of particular interest are:

  • Itemized Individual Contributions
  • Party Committees Contributions
  • Other Committees Contributions
  • Operating Expenditures


  1. Clicking one of those categories will bring up a table of records. We don't care about that. We do care about getting this data in CSV format. So click on the little CSV icon in the top right.


  1. Note that you can change the election cycle using the radio buttons. Use this to find the data for the 2008 Senate election.

Senate Independent Expenditures

  1. Visit the 2014 Senate Independent Expenditures page and choose your state:


  2. Again, ignore the frills, and just download the CSV to work with:


  3. This data only exists after 2010. So we don't need to do it for the 2008 race.

You'll note that the Independent expenditure data is not straightforward. The Candidate Name will have different variations for the same candidate – e.g. "DAN SULLIVAN", "Sullivan, Dan" – and that there's a field for "Support/Oppose".


  • Analyze a Senate race's campaign spending

    Due by next class

    Teams (groups of 3) will each focus on one of the 7 most highly-contested Senate races and produce a data dossier that includes:

    • An analysis of campaign finance records for the two current candidates, including how much money has been spent, where the money came from, and how much money is currently on hand.
    • Repeat the analysis for the 2008 race and compare the difference with 2014.

    The teams

    Students State
    Dan, Austin, Sabrina Alaska
    Allison, Laura, Sean Colorado
    Carolina, Mary Ann, Yuqing Georgia
    Jay, Katie, Phoebe Iowa
    Ariha, Liam, Maren Kansas
    Alex, Farida, Jessica N.C.

    Data you must collect from the FEC website

    Download all of these CSV files and collect them in three spreadsheets.

    From the Senate Campaign Finance committees per candidate:

    • contributions.csv
      • Itemized Individual Contributions (both candidates) [2013-2014]
      • Itemized Individual Contributions (both candidates) [2007-2008]
    • operating-expenditures.csv
      • Operating Expenditures (both candidates) [2013-2014]
      • Operating Expenditures (both candidates) [2007-2008]
    • independent-expenditures.csv
      • Senate independent expenditures [2013-2014]

    Fill out this master spreadsheet

    The class will collaboratively edit this Google Spreadsheet.

    One row for each candidate (i.e. two candidates per state)

    • State
    • Year
    • Candidate Last name
    • Candidate First name
    • Candidate Party
    • Candidate Incumbent?
    • Itemized Individual contributions
    • Unitemized individual contributions
    • Party Committees Contributions
    • Other committees contributions
    • Candidate contributions
    • Transfers from authorized committees
    • Candidate Loans
    • Other loans
    • Operating expenditure offsets
    • Other receipts
    • Operating expenditures
    • Transfers to other Authorized Committees
    • Candidate Loan Repayments
    • Other Loan Repayments
    • Individual Refunds
    • Political Party Refunds
    • Other Committee Refunds
    • Other Disbursements

Course schedule

  • Tuesday, September 23

    The singular of data is anecdote

    An introduction to public affairs reporting and the core skills of using data to find and tell important stories.
    • Count something interesting
    • Make friends with math
    • The joy of text
    • How to do a data project
  • Thursday, September 25

    Bad big data

    Just because it's data doesn't make it right. But even when all the available data is flawed, we can get closer to the truth with mathematical reasoning and the ability to make comparisons, small and wide.
    • Fighting bad data with bad data
    • Baltimore's declining rape statistics
    • FBI crime reporting
    • The Uber effect on drunk driving
    • Pivot tables
  • Tuesday, September 30

    DIY Databases

    Learn how to take data in your own hands. There are two kinds of databases: the kind someone else has made, and the kind you have to make yourself.
    • The importance of spreadsheets
    • Counting murders
    • Making calls
    • A crowdsourced spreadsheet
  • Thursday, October 2

    Data in the newsroom

    Phillip Reese of the Sacramento Bee will discuss how he uses data in his investigative reporting projects.
    • Phillip Reese speaks
  • Tuesday, October 7

    The points of maps

    Mapping can be a dramatic way to connect data to where readers are and to what they recognize.
    • Why maps work
    • Why maps don't work
    • Introduction to Fusion Tables and TileMill
  • Thursday, October 9

    The shapes of maps

    A continuation of learning mapping tools, with a focus on borders and shapes
    • Working with KML files
    • Intensity maps
    • Visual joins and intersections
  • The first in several sessions on learning SQL for the exploration of large datasets.
    • MySQL / SQLite
    • Select, group, and aggregate
    • Where conditionals
    • SFPD reports of larceny, narcotics, and prostitution
    • Babies, and what we name them
  • Thursday, October 16

    A needle in multiple haystacks

    The ability to join different datasets is one of the most direct ways to find stories that have been overlooked.
    • Inner joins
    • One-to-one relationships
    • Our politicians and what they tweet
  • Tuesday, October 21

    Haystacks without needles

    Sometimes, what's missing is more important than what's there. We will cover more complex join logic to find what's missing from related datasets.
    • Left joins
    • NULL values
    • Which Congressmembers like Ellen Degeneres?
  • A casual midterm covering the range of data analysis and programming skills acquired so far.
    • A midterm on SQL and data
    • Data on military surplus distributed to U.S. counties
    • U.S. Census QuickFacts
  • Tuesday, October 28

    Campaign Cash Check

    The American democratic process generates loads of interesting data and insights for us to examine, including who is financing political campaigns.
    • Polling and pollsters
    • Following the campaign finance money
    • Competitive U.S. Senate races
  • Thursday, October 30

    Predicting the elections

    With Election Day coming up, we examine the practices of polling as a way to understand various scenarios of statistical bias and error.
    • Statistical significance
    • Poll reliability
    • Forecasting
  • Tuesday, November 4

    Election day (No class)

    Do your on-the-ground reporting
    • No class because of Election Day Coverage
  • While there are many tools and techniques for building data graphics, there is no magic visualization tool that will make a non-story worth telling.
    • Review of the midterm
    • The importance of good data in visualizations
    • How visualization can augment the Serial podcast
  • Tuesday, November 11

    Dirty data, cleaned dirt cheap

    One of the most tedious but important parts of data analysis is just cleaning and organizing the data. Being a good "data janitor" lets you spend more time on the more fun parts of journalism.
    • Dirty data
    • OpenRefine
    • Clustering
  • Thursday, November 13

    Guest speaker: Simon Rogers

    Simon Rogers, data editor at Twitter, talks about his work, how Twitter reflects how communities talk to each other, and the general role of data journalism.
    • Ellen, World Cup, and other masses of Twitter data
  • Tuesday, November 18

    What we say and what we do

    When the data doesn't directly reveal something obvious, we must consider what its structure and its metadata implies.
    • Proxy variables
    • Thanks Google for figuring out my commute
    • How racist are we, really?
    • How web sites measure us
  • Thursday, November 20

    Project prep and discussion

    Discussion of final projects before the Thanksgiving break.
  • Tuesday, November 25

    Thanksgiving break

    Holiday - no class
  • Thursday, November 27

    Thanksgiving break

    Holiday - no class
  • Tuesday, December 2

    Project wrapup

    Last-minute help on final projects.
  • Thursday, December 4

    Project Show-N-Tell

    In-class presentations of our final data projects.