Three Themes of Seth Moulton’s Inaugural Term, Visualized with Data
Leveraging statistical techniques for investigating trends in data, three major themes from Congressman Seth Moulton’s first term in office emerge.
First, Rep. Moulton displayed persistent leadership on complex domestic issues. Second, he was a central figure to several key international events. And, third, the former marine succeeded in passing bills with bipartisan support despite an unprecedentedly polarized U.S. House of Representatives.
My exploratory analysis began by generating clusters of related newspaper articles. From August 2013 through October 2016, there were 2168 items published by the American print media that mention “Seth Moulton”. In the diagram above, each point represents a unique article, and items with similar content are connected by a line. The shorter the distance between articles in the diagram, the more similar their subject matter is.
An algorithm categorizes adjacent articles into thematic groups, which are shown as different colors. As examples, the prominent keywords in the eight largest clusters are:
To begin to draw meaningful structure from these clustered data, it’s instructive to chart the articles on a timeline:
As the keywords representing Moulton’s 2014 opponents (i.e., John Tierney in the primary, Richard Tisei in the general) and other Massachusetts-based candidates (e.g., Martha Coakley) suggest, the teal and yellow clusters dominate the period that culminates in his November 2014 election:
This analytical method is optimized for long sections of written, natural language, so I’ve limited the data to full-length newspaper articles to the exclusion of, for example, video and audio formats. This approach is therefore biased in favor of content from national print media conglomerates and effectively ignores Seth’s regular contributions to local television and radio.
Theme 1 — Persistent Leadership on Complex Domestic Issues
Three sets of major clusters represent Seth’s ongoing political efforts on domestic efforts. Articles from these clusters are spread relatively evenly across his inaugural two-year term.
There were 260 articles related to Rep. Moulton’s work on the House Armed Services Committee, his efforts to improve funding for Veterans Affairs health networks, and his strategies for handling terrorism:
Additionally, there were 72 articles associated with fisheries management, a principal matter in Seth’s North Shore district:
There were also 136 articles involving firearm legislation (yellow) and July’s shooting in Orlando (red). The yellow blocks in 2015 and early 2016 demonstrate Moulton discussing gun laws throughout his term, with a small burst of media activity in January.
The tragedy in Florida generated the pronounced column of red-colored articles on June 12th. The yellow column that immediately follows is comprised of national articles covering Democrats’ sit-in on gun violence legislation, which Seth participated in, and his New York Daily News cover story advocating for an assault rifle ban:
Theme 2 — Presence Around Key International Events
On top of ongoing legislative work, Seth received broad coverage related to exceptional events that played out on the international stage during his inaugural term. As in Theme 1, three sets of clusters are illuminating here.
Seth championed support for refugees fleeing Middle Eastern conflicts, particularly the Syrian civil war (teal cluster). This included conspicuously inviting nine-year-old refugee Ahmad Alkhalaf to be his guest at the State of the Union address on January 12th (green). In aggregate, there were 95 articles across the two clusters:
In addition, Seth was a noted voice on the Iranian nuclear deal brokered in the summer of 2015, which he described as “imperfect but viable”. There were 71 articles in this cluster:
Thirdly, there was a media splash around Barack Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, the first by a sitting U.S. President since the 1950s. Seth participated as a member of the trip’s Congressional delegation, and 25 articles on the topic were published over three days in March.
Theme 3 — Passing Bipartisan Bills in a Polarized House
Last year, Clio Andris and her colleagues published an expounding analysis of the ever-more-polarized U.S. House. The “exponentially” increasing partisanship from 1949 through 2012 is made stark by their network diagram in which red points denote Republican representatives, blue points denote Democrats, and a shorter distance between points relates to closer agreement on Congressional votes:
It would not be surprising if a 2015–’16 update of this analysis showed Rep. Moulton as one of the rare nodes bridging the otherwise sharply-delineated blue and red clusters of recent sessions. Seth has been the second-most productive freshman Democrat in the 114th session, with two bills he sponsored passing the Republican-controlled House. Bucking the partisan trend, the first bill was co-sponsored by two Republicans and three Democrats, while the second was co-sponsored by seven Rs and sixteen Ds.
The 115th Session
Rep. Moulton is running unopposed in next month’s election so I am anticipating his remarkable across-the-aisle effectiveness will continue through 2018. Given the trends from the current session, I expect this will involve a blend of ongoing leadership on domestic matters and growing influence around pivotal international events.
Thank you to Quid for kindly providing their software for both data collection and analysis, as well as to Peter McCarthy for outstanding support on the tool, and to Christian Urrutia for the introduction to Seth in the Spring of 2014. For curated data science resources, visit my site here.