What do the executive producer of “Get Carter” and large oil companies have in common? Though they were on opposite sides of a big-money fight over an alternative energy ballot initiative in 2006, they’re both Sugar Daddies. And even if an evening with the Professional Engineers in California Government or brokerage founder Charles R. Schwab doesn’t sound like a rollicking good time, according to us, they’re both Party Animals.

On Monday, we rolled out The Rainmakers, a look at the top 50 individual and top 50 group donors to California state political campaigns between 2001 and 2011. There is lots of great work going on in campaign finance journalism, so we wanted to try to add something unique if we were going to dive into the pool. We decided to focus less on the contributions themselves and more on profiling the biggest donors – who they are, how they give and what types of campaigns they tend to fund.

Hence the badges. Reporter and data analyst Coulter Jones, who now knows this data backward and forward, identified several interesting ways to group types of donors. Those who matched the criteria for each group were awarded a badge – an easily understood visual shorthand way to bring context to the surface that would be hard to point out otherwise.

For example, a Sugar Daddy badge is awarded to donors whose contributions made up at least 25 percent of all the money that a particular committee received. A Party Animal is a donor who gave at least 80 percent to just one political party.

We hope you like the result, and we hope you’ll join in the fun in one of several ways.

Grab the widget

Just paste this code in to embed the top 10 individual and top 10 group donors on your site. There’s an example on SFGate.com.

<!--Rainmaker widget-->
<script>var rainmaker_exclude = [];//Optionally, add strings 'headline' and/or 'description' to Array to use your own</script>
<script src="http://media.apps.cironline.org/rainmaker/site_media/js/rainmakertop10.js"></script>
<div id="rainmaker-widget-container"></div>
<!--Rainmaker widget-->

The widget will fill whatever HTML container you put it in, and you can easily add your own CSS to the page to customize the look. You can also turn off the headline and/or description at the top if it would duplicate something on your page. (It’s always bugged us when widgets don’t let us do that.) If you run into problems or have questions about the widget, drop Michael Corey a note.

Adopt a state

Keeping with our goal to build tools that benefit not only us, but also the broader journalism and transparency community, we’ve built the underlying platform that powers this application to work in any state. Because we’re relying on standardized data from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, which transforms data from multiple states into a single consistent format, we can just as easily deploy a copy of our Rainmaker app in Vermont, Idaho or Texas as we did in California – visualizations, badges and all.

If you’re interested in adopting a copy of Rainmaker for your state, contact CIR’s director of technology, Chase Davis. Getting up and running will require some nontechnical work on your end, but we’d love to work with you.

Use the API

The app comes with a built-in API if you want to integrate our bios or badges into another application. If you adopt your own state, the code comes with the same API for each state, so you’ll have some nice hooks for donors, contributions to each donor and the badges they’ve been assigned.

Mess with the code

The Rainmakers code will be open-sourced soon on GitHub (still have some cleanup to do), so if you don’t want to adopt a state but just like something in the app, you’ll be able to grab the code.

Just download some donor data

If you don’t have time for all this code or widget nonsense and just want some data on one of the top donors, each donor page includes a link to download a CSV file of all the contributions from that donor in our dataset.

Or download all of the data

If you’d like the full dataset, check out the National Institute on Money in State Politics’ API or the Sunlight Foundation’s Influence Explorer. The data for this app doesn’t include money given to independent expenditure committees, which wasn’t included in our analysis. Independent expenditure committees have increasingly been used to give money to groups that support candidates or causes but aren’t directly connected. NIMSP doesn’t collect all of that information, but it does a great job of providing a consistent dataset with more than 10 years worth of information on ballots and candidates that can be analyzed for win/loss ratio and other factors. Including only some donations to independent expenditure committees likely would lead to an incomplete dataset.


Another feature we’ve rolled into the app is an “interestingness” metric. We employed simple machine learning techniques to classify contributions that deviate from a donor’s typical giving pattern in a number of ways, such as the absolute and relative size of the contribution, the party giving history of the donor, the timing of the donation and whether the donor has contributed to a particular candidate or cause before. The interestingness flag is available in the API under the “bool_interesting” attribute of Donor Contributions. We’d love to hear what you think!

Roll the credits

Like all of our projects at CIR, the app is the fruit of many people’s labors. Coulter Jones and Chase Davis did the really heavy lifting of teasing out the top donors themselves and assigning badges. Michael Corey wrote most of the Django, HTML and JavaScript code, building off Davis’ foundation. San Francisco illustrator Tom Guffey did most of the amazing badge designs.

Many of the original bios themselves were written by Stanford University students enrolled in a Communications Department investigative reporting class under the direction of California Watch Editorial Director Mark Katches. The project began in January 2011. Students participating were: Devin Banerjee, Daniel Bohm, Kathleen Chaykowski, Tom Corrigan, Cassandra Feliciano, Jamie Hansen, Amy Harris, Josh Hicks, Ellen Huet, Julia James, Paul Jones, Ryan Mac, Valentina Nesci, Dean Schaffer, Elizabeth Titus and Kareem Yasin. Bohm, Hansen, Harris, Huet and Titus continued to work on the project as California Watch interns under the direction of Associate Editor Denise Zapata.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.


Coulter Jones is an investigative reporter for The Center for Investigative Reporting specializing in data analysis. He previously worked for Investigative Reporters and Editors, where he helped run the NICAR Database Library and managed IRE’s website. Prior to that, Coulter worked at newspapers in Pennsylvania. He is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri.

Chase Davis is the director of technology for California Watch and its parent organization, the Center for Investigative Reporting. He also writes about money and politics issues for California Watch. Chase previously worked as an investigative reporter at The Des Moines Register and the Houston Chronicle and is a founding partner of the media-technology firm Hot Type Consulting. He is a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism.

Michael Corey is a former senior data editor. He led a team of data journalists who seek to distill large datasets into compelling and easily understandable stories using the tools of journalism, statistics and programming. His specialties include mapping, the U.S.-Mexico border, scientific data and working with remote sensing. Corey's work has been honored with an Online Journalism Award, an Emmy Award, a Polk Award, an IRE Medal and other national awards. He previously worked for the Des Moines Register and graduated from Drake University.