Atlantic Cities

The U.S. Metros With the Most Political Influence

The U.S. Metros With the Most Political Influence

Political campaign donations are typically reported to the Federal Election Commission by ZIP code, which is not the most useful format for wrapping your head around the financial influence of whole cities or counties. Working with the Sunlight Foundation, though, the Philadelphia-based geo-spatial firm Azavea (we first encountered them here) has done the painstaking work of geocoding years of individual campaign contributions to candidates in federal elections. This makes it possible to more easily map and analyze the data by geography.

The first product of that effort is a great series of county-by-county interactive maps that Sunlight and Azavea released today. They show not just which parties are on the receiving end of whose money, but where that money is geographically concentrated. In the 2012 election cycle, for instance, Azavea's Lena Ferguson calculated that just 10 counties – out of more than 3,000 nationwide – were responsible for 30 percent of all contributions made by individual donors (to political campaigns and PACs). All 10 represent major metro areas:

  1. New York County, New York
  2. Washington, D.C.
  3. Los Angeles County, California
  4. Cook County, Illinois
  5. Clark County, Nevada
  6. Harris County, Texas
  7. Fairfield County, Connecticut
  8. Dallas County, Texas
  9. Middlesex County, Massachusetts
  10. Palm Beach County, Florida

Here that same data is plotted on a map, by Ben Chartoff and Bob Lannon, that spans contributions from 1990-2012:

Clearly, those 10 counties contain some of the densest population centers in the country, so it's little surprise that the bulk of political money would flow from there, too.

This next map looks instead at political contributions by county, per capita, and shows a notably different picture:

Because a couple of major political donors live in some of the more sparsely populated corners of Wyoming, per capita contributions to presidential and congressional candidates in Teton County were about $454 per person in 2012. In Los Angeles County, that number was more like $15 per person in the last election, even though LA's total ($149 million) dwarfed Teton County's ($10 million).

So where is all of this money going? This third map tracks which party received a majority of individual contributions in the presidential race by county (these maps don't include money given to PACs). The results don't necessarily track more traditional election maps of voting results. Contributions in nearly every county in Florida in 2012 favored Mitt Romney, but Barack Obama won the state. Obama also won Dallas County in Texas by 57 percent, despite the fact that 75 percent of the money from there went to Romney.

The historical data going back to 1990 also makes it possible to track how contributions have shifted over time in ways that challenge our stereotypes about the liberal coasts and the steadfastly left-learning urban centers. As Sunlight points out, counties in the heartland tend to clearly favor one party over the other in presidential political giving. Coastal counties, on the other hand, are more often closely split in their contribution patterns. Across time, the challenging party in a presidential election also tends to receive more money than the incumbent.

This GIF built with maps from the above tool captures how the geography of political giving can change significantly from one election to the next:

Emily Badger is a former staff writer at The Atlantic Cities based in Washington, D.C. She now writes for The Washington Post. All posts »

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