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January 18, 2012

Filed under: journalism»new_media

Your Scattered Congresses

Once more with feeling: today, I'm happy to bring you my last CQ vote study interactive. This version is something special: although it lacks the fancy animations of its predecessor, it offers a full nine years of voting data, and it does so faster and in more detail. Previously, we had only offered data going back to 2009, or a separate interactive showing the Bush era composite scores.

We had talked about this three-pane presentation at CQ as far back as two years ago, in a discussion with the UX team on how they could work together with my multimedia team. Our goal was to lower the degree to which a user had to switch manually between views, and to visually reinforce what the scatter plot represents: a spatial view of party discipline. I think it does a pretty good job, although I do miss the pretty transitions between different graph types.

Technically speaking, loading nine years of votestudy data was a challenge: that's almost 5,000 scores to collect, organize, and display. The source files necessarily separate member biodata (name, district, party, etc) from the votestudy data, since putting the two into the same data structure would bloat the file size from repetition (many members served in multiple years). But keeping them separate causes a lag problem while interacting with the graphic: doing lookups based on XML queries tends to be very slow, particularly over 500K of XML.

I tried a few tricks to find a balance between real-time lookup (slow interaction, quick initial load) and a full preprocessing step (slow initial load, quick interactions). In the end, I went with an approach that processes each year when it's first displayed, adding biodata to the votestudy data structure at that time, and caching member IDs to minimize the lookup time on members who persist between years. The result is a slight lag when flipping between years or chambers for the first time, but it's not enough to be annoying and the startup time remains quick.

(In a funny side note, working with just the score data is obscenely quick. It's fast enough, in fact, that I can run through all nine years to find the bounds for the unity part of graph to keep it consistent from year to yearin less than a millisecond. That's fast enough that I can be lazy and do that before every re-render--as long as I don't need any names. Don't optimize prematurely, indeed.)

The resulting graphic is typical of CQ interactives, in that it's a direct view on our data without a strong editorial perspective--we don't try to hammer a story through here. That said, I think there's some interesting information that emerges when you can look at single years of data going back to 2002:

  • The Senate is generally much more supportive of the president than the House is. While you can't directly compare scores across chambers (because the votes are different), the trend is striking. It's well known that House members tend to be more radical than senators, but I suspect the difference is also procedural: in the House, the leadership controls the agenda much more tightly than in the Senate, which can be held up by filibuster. As a result, the House may vote on bills that would never reach the Senate floor, just because the majority party can force the issue.
  • Although the conventional wisdom on the left since the Gingrich years has been that Republican discipline is stronger for political reasons, I'm not sure that's entirely borne out by these graphics. Party unity over the last nine years appears roughly symmetrical most of the time, while presidential support (and opposition) appears to shift in direct response to the strength of the White House due to popularity and/or election status. 2007-2009 was a particularly strong time for the Democrats in terms of uniting around or against a presidential agenda, for obvious reasons. This year the Republicans rallied significantly, particularly in the House.
  • There is one person who's explicitly taken out of the graphs (and not removed due to lack of participation or other technical reasons). That person is Zell Miller, everyone's favorite Bush-era iconoclast. If you're like me, you haven't thought about Zell Miller in 6 or 7 years, but there he was when I loaded the Senate file for the first time. Miller voted against his party so often that he had ridiculously low scores in 2003 and 2004, resulting in a vast expanse of white space on the plots with one lonely blue dot at the bottom. Rather than let him make everyone too small to click, I dropped him from the dataset as an outlier.
All of this, of course, is just my amateur political analysis. While I'm arguably more informed (possibly too informed!) about congressional practice than the average person, I'm no expert. For that, you may want to check out CQ's always-fantastic editorial graphics on the votestudies, which show in more detail the legislative trends of the last few decades. It's very cool stuff.

Finally, I did mention that this is my last CQ votestudy interactive. It's been a fantastic ride at Congressional Quarterly, and I'm grateful for the opportunities and education I received there. But it's time to move on, and to find something closer to home here in Seattle: at the end of this month, I'll be starting in a new position, doing web development at Big Fish Games. Wish me luck!

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