Studying Political Campaigns on the Internet

You’ve heard of the “Six Degrees of Separation” game, usually played with Kevin Bacon as the “destination” actor? The goal of the game is to link any actor in Hollywood to Mr. Bacon, using as links other actors and the movies in which they have both appeared. In the example below, Elizabeth Taylor was in “The Flintstones” with John Goodman, who appeared in “Beyond All Boundaries” with Kevin Bacon. (If you want to play around with the idea more, click here.)

oracle of bacon screenshot
Screenshot from The Oracle of Bacon website, showing how Elizabeth Taylor is connected to Kevin Bacon.

This is a popular culture variation of a game that mathematicians have been playing for years, which is to find their “Erdös number,” which documents the number of co-authorship links a particular mathematician is from Paul Erdös, a prolific Hungarian researcher. As in the Bacon version, all the links create a network graph of collaboration.

This game can also be played with political contributions. For example, check this out:

2012 PAC contributions
Network graph made by Alan Neustadtl, from the University of Maryland’s Sociology Department.

These are the connections from corporate political action committees (PACs) to candidates made by individual contributions during the 2012 election season. Triangles represent candidates and circles represent PACs. The candidates are color coded: red for Republicans and blue for Democrats, and the opacity of the edges is scaled by amount of PAC contribution. More information about the graph is available from NodeXL, the free Excel plugin used to generate it.

As a project, why not have students make graphs using NodeXL of contributions to particular elected officials or of contributions from particular donors? Take them to opensecrets.org or to the Federal Elections Commission to do some research with their APIs.   Investigating the support system created by money in American politics can explain a great deal about the decisions that get made, and the policies that are implemented.   In particular, the Independent Expenditures data from the FEC, which reports expenditures for communications “expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate that are not made in cooperation, consultation, or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, a candidate’s authorized committee, or their agents, or a political party or its agents.” It should be eye-popping, especially in a presidential election year!


BulbgraphOnOffWrite unguided essay outlines together in class, using the guided essay model. Have class discuss and select main and supporting ideas.

Published by

akamran2014

Dr. Annelies Kamran is V.P. for Content and Product Development at WorldView Software, Inc.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s