Money and politics, they go together like peanut butter and jelly, ham and eggs, late nights and data science. Thanks to the internet, a 24-hour news cycle and social media it seems that politics is everywhere. One thing that gets relatively little attention in the mainstream, however, is the relationship between our public officials, the offices they hold and their personal finances. Thanks to the hard working folks over at the Center for Responsive Politics data on our public servants personal finances and their campaign contributions is readily accessible. After you finish my article make sure you head over to their website at OpenSecrets.org and take a look around.
The main question I wanted to explore with this project was to see what, if any, relationships existed between campaign contributions and personal gain for members of Congress. Thanks to OpenSecrets’ tools including their bulk data, API, and publicly facing tables, I was able to compile over 50,000 points of data. This data included the net worth for every member of Congress from the years 2010–2016, as well as campaign contributions from those years.
My first step in this was to explore what the average increase in net worth was for a member of Congress.
It’s easy to see here that the average Congressperson outperforms their constituent, and I don’t think this comes as a surprise to anyone. What could be contributing to this though? I think, perhaps, the obvious next step would be to see if perhaps party affiliation has anything to do with it.
At first glance it looks as though there may be some sort of separation between the two parties, but upon closer inspection it really doesn’t seem to be the case. The two parties sort of go back and forth — some years one does better and some years the other does better. We already know that 2016 was a peculiar year in politics and I don’t think we can draw any assumptions one way or another from this set of data based on that one year.
What does seem safe to say is that it doesn’t seem to be super obvious that party affiliation has an impact one way or another on the net worth of our elected officials in Congress. So what does?
I wanted to see what impact campaign contributions had on a Congressperson’s net worth. So I began collecting data from the pertinent years for each member of Congress and the amount of donations they received from five major sectors: energy, finance, technology and communications, health and defense. Then I ranked each member based on how much money they took from each sector during a given election cycle. Finally I created what I am calling the Friendliness Index which is the average ranking across all five sectors for each year. What I found next was interesting to say the least.
It seems that for the lowest ranked members there was somewhat similar movement. However, there was one group which consistently did well over time, and that was the group of members which took the most money from these five sectors. Those members with a Friendliness Index of 4 or higher were the only group to have a positive increase in net worth across all the years which I studied.
Here it is easier to see that this group has the best performance, not only do they maintain a positive net worth increase, but their gains never even get close to zero. Looking at 2016 they performed exceedingly well. So is there a correlation between the amount of money received in campaign contributions and personal gain? For this lets look at the overall increase in net worth across all the years collected in the data.
It is important to note that this is a relatively small sampling of data, and there are limitations in the data collected about public officials personal finances. It does, however, seem that there is something going on here. With an increase in the Friendliness Index rating there is an increase in performance over the years regarding the group’s personal finances. Again we see that the one group which above and beyond outperformed the others, was that which consistently received the most money from the five sectors in which data was collected. This is definitely an area that warrants investigation.
Another big shout out to the people at the Center for Responsive Politics. Without them this would not have been possible. Also a big thank you to everyone from Lambda School who helped with feedback and input while I worked on this project.