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Data Analytics Project: Money in State Politics

Data Analytics Project: Money in State Politics

 
 
 State legislative district map of Virginia

State legislative district map of Virginia

 

Can out of state, grassroots fundraising flip a state legislative district from red to blue? 

 

The project

I explored this question as my final project for a Data Analytics class at General Assembly in summer 2017. 

At the time, I was volunteering with activism group, Sister District, which pairs reliably blue congressional districts with "purple" state legislative districts to try and flip them. 

I started this project in the summer, before the election, and have updated it since the election took place, on November 7, 2017. 

As of this moment (11/10/17), my candidate, Shelly Simonds, trails the incumbent Republican by 12 votes and is likely to demand a recount. I will update this project when the final outcome is known. 

 

A little context on the what and why of Sister District

 

The Candidates

The Republican incumbent, David Yancey, was running for his third two-year term in the Virginia House of Delegates. Confusingly, we started out supporting Zack Wittkamp as the Democratic challenger. However, Wittkamp dropped out in July and Shelly Simonds replaced him. Simonds had previously run against Yancey, in 2015, and lost.  

 David Yancey - Republican incumbent

David Yancey - Republican incumbent

 Shelly Simonds - Democratic challenger

Shelly Simonds - Democratic challenger

 Zack Wittkamp - Democratic challenger (dropped out) 

Zack Wittkamp - Democratic challenger (dropped out) 

The Datasets

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The district is Virginia's 94th, which contains Newport News. It was quite challenging to find financial datasets pertaining to a single state legislative district. 

Eventually I found the excellent website, FollowTheMoney.org, from the National Institute of Money in State Politics, which tracks exactly this kind of spending. 

I analyzed the data in Tableau, Excel and SQL. 

 

Analysis: TL;DR


My overall prediction in July was that the Republican incumbent, David Yancey, had a fundraising machine in place that would be difficult for a challenger to defeat, as it had been in the past. 

I was wrong about this. Yancey's fundraising dropped while his challenger's increased. It's noteworthy that out of state funds from grassroots groups were not the primary driver of the increase. 


 
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David Yancey: Outlier

The Republican incumbent candidate, David Yancey, raised many multiples more than any of the other candidates that the dataset tracked.

Visualization excludes 2017 election data.

 

 
 It's noteworthy that Yancey's massive upswing in fundraising took place in 2011 -- the year after Citizens United became law. Visualization excludes 2017 election data.

It's noteworthy that Yancey's massive upswing in fundraising took place in 2011 -- the year after Citizens United became law. Visualization excludes 2017 election data.

 
 
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Party Patterns

No Democrats ran between 2003 and 2007. 

Challengers did not raise as much as Yancey every time he ran over the past few years. 

 
 
 
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Where did all that money come from?

This is somewhat mysterious. The main "sectors" contributing to Yancey are "candidate contributions," "party" and "uncoded." 

Additionally, Yancey's largest geographic source of funding outside of Virginia comes quite heftily from Illinois.  

 
 

What ended up happening

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New groups – like Sister District, Run Everywhere and Forward Majority – contributed about $60,000 to the Simonds campaign, no small amount in a local race. This was dwarfed, however, by the single single largest source of funds to either candidate – nearly $180,000 to Simonds from the Virginia House Democratic Caucus. (Yancey's single largest source of funds came from the Virginia Republican Party, close to $90,000). 

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Insights and Takeaways

  • While an incumbent candidate's fundraising prowess may seem unbeatable, this streak does not last forever. 

  • State political fundraising machines may be in a better position to meaningfully support local candidates financially.

  • While state Democratic party machines are said to have been ignored during the Obama administration, the election of Trump may have given them a fresh energy that is allowing for a relatively quick rebound. 

  • It may be that the biggest contribution outside groups can make to state/local races is through "boots on the ground" GOTV or phone banking efforts.