Thursday, April 26, 2007

Playing "Gotcha" with Campaign Contributions

OK, so maybe I'm being a bit of an apologist for the campaign fundraising process, but I have to say that I'm a little irritated by the story in Wired magazine about how recent web mashups are turning citizens into Washington's newest watchdogs.

Before you ask, a "mash up" is an application that allows the user to take information from a variety of disparate data sources and, well, mash them together. In the case of political / money mashups, the purveyors are pulling information on financing and information on votes -- and drawing their own conclusions.

The article starts with the story of MapLight, which put together an interesting report showing that in a debate on legislaton to ban clear-cutting, the environmental community gave less in contributions to elected officials than those opposed to the legislation (a wide range of chambers of commerce, timber interests and the like). The bill was defeated.

Gotcha! The conclusion immediately drawn is that the money was what influenced the vote. And yet, to my knowledge, the report didn't review other factors that might have had some influence -- like who lives in which Assembly district, how many coalition members stood on each side of the issue, what the messages were or whether the group that won the vote engaged in other activity, such as estensive grassroots and grasstops lobbying.

See, anyone doing basic credible analysis should know that the existence of a "correlation" between two things does not automatically mean there is a cause and effect relationship. Consider the argument that the disciples of the "Flying Spaghetti Monster" make in noting that global warming and hurricanes have increased while the number of pirates in the world has decreased: the cause and effect here is clear -- pirates have kept natural disasters at bay.

Plus, one thing that people seem to be glossing over in this particular case (the California vote, not the pirates) is the fact that the opponents actually contributed MORE to those legislators who voted "yes" than the other side! Clearly their money wasn't very influential in that case. Or perhaps those were just the incorruptible members.

Believe me, I'm not a fan of our campaign financing process. I'm not a fundraiser nor would I ever want to be one. I did, however, work for several different members of Congress and I can tell you that the votes of members of Congress are influenced by a thousand different things, from what the Congressman's friends say to how other members of the party are voting to whether the Congressman had lunch that day.

The one common denominator though -- the thing they ask for before every single vote -- is "what are my consituents back home saying?" The power of constituency is a power everyone has. Unfortunately, that's the power some people aren't willing to use because they don't realize just how influential they can be, without a check in hand.


Dan Newman said...

Thank you for your thoughtful post. At, we aim to make data on money and legislative votes publicly available and easy to analyze, so that each citizen may access the facts and draw his or her own conclusions. We don't claim that correlation is causality--we present the data for others to make use of to better understand politics and issues.

Dan Newman, Executive Director,

Stephanie Vance said...

Thanks for the clarification. Are you looking into providing data on other things that might influence votes? I'd be very interested in other data you might be able to "mash up." Thanks for reading!

Dan Newman said...

We're not looking into this currently, but we would consider including any relevant and objective sources of data. As you know, some of the influences on legislators are hard to quantify. We are open to your ideas.