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September 10, 2008

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Your Scattered Congress

Each year, CQ does an elaborate vote study for all 535 members of Congress, resulting in scores for their party unity (how often did they vote with the leadership) and presidential support (how often did they vote with the president's pre-announced positions). These are published in the weekly magazine, and this time they accompanied an article on the rising influence of moderates.

These features are always very popular--if nothing else, member offices call up wanting to know where they fall in the scores. If you've heard the numbers in speeches or ads about McCain's voting record, chances are they came from us. It's the kind of thing that CQ is really, really good at, because we just constantly hoover in all kinds of legislative data. But we're not always very good about getting that information back out to people.

So one of my projects before the convention hit was to create two views on the vote study workbooks: one was a simple, searchable table of all the scores with competitive races highlighted, and the other was a dynamic graphic of the scores as both scatter and distribution graphs. The second in that series went live just last week. So here's scores across the entire Bush term, as well as 2008 year-to-date scores.

I'm proud of these graphics for two reasons. One is that I think they look pretty good for a small operation like our shop, although I wish I could have left them with the original plain white backgrounds. But these graphics are also valuable to me because they show how we can start to tell stories using data visualization that don't come through in the table. You can see where people are, find the outliers, and see just how partisan Congress is. Latent narratives also emerge: look at the two graphs side by side, as in the picture below.

The top graph is the Bush term numbers for the House, the bottom is numbers for just 2008YTD. Although it's subtle, you can actually see how the Democrats have solidifed their positions, becoming more concentrated at a high level of party unity and low level of presidential support. You can also see the Republicans sprawling out in disagreement with the president, likely as his approval ratings have dropped. This trend is so pronounced that when I ran the distribution chart on the 2008YTD numbers, I actually had to change my scaling algorithm by 300% in order to fit the Democrats into the view pane. Likewise, in the Senate, I had to increase the range horizontally by 20% in order to keep some Republicans from shooting offscreen on the presidential support distribution.

As we get in the final 2008 numbers, and as I find the time, the next goal will be to continue to refine the story told in these charts. We plan to create a new graph with a slider, allowing readers to flip between each year since 2000 and watch the partisan shifts and alignment changes. It doesn't replace the tabular data, but it supplements it in a new and engaging way. And that's really what I think a good interactive graphic like this should do.

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