We Found the ZIP Codes Politicians Use as ATMs — and the Ones They Ignore

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There is a refrain common in the wealthy area of blue and red states: Politicians see us as a piggy bank, a place to come pick up checks and then fly away. I decided to figure out where these ATMs are located.

That's the other way of formulating the idea, as Wendy Greuel did to The New York Times on Sunday. "Politicians come here from all over the country and use us as an A.T.M.," Greuel said — here being California's 33rd Congressional District. That district is the site of a heated battle to replace Rep. Henry Waxman, a retiring Democrat in a solidly Democratic region. (Greuel is one of the candidates.) No need for pitched battles in the 33rd (or, prior to redistricting, Waxman's 30th Congressional). It was just an ATM, located conveniently close to LAX.

So where are the other piggy banks? To figure this out, I pulled data from two sources. First, I grabbed campaign contribution data for 2012 and 2014 from the Federal Election Commission. Then I got data on household incomes from the Census Bureau. I figured out how many wealthy people lived in each ZIP code by tallying the number of people with a household income of $200,000 or more in 2012 (at a minimum of 50 such households), and then compared that to the number and amount of contributions by ZIP code. You still with me?

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What that gave me was the ability to figure out the average number of donations per $200,000-income household and the average amount of those donations. ZIP codes that exceeded those averages are more likely to be piggy banks or ATMs, places that contribute a disproportionate share to national elections. The ones that come up below average are more miserly. Or, if you will, places that elected officials should fly to start hosting high-dollar fundraisers.

But let's look at the map.

The key: orange icons represent 2012 dates; blue icons are 2014. The little man shows the number of contributions in the ZIP code. The dollar sign is the total amount. And, finally, the smaller the icon, the more miserly the district. You can turn layers on and off using the menu at right. Each layer shows the top and bottom 25 ZIP codes.

In 2012, the most widely used ATM was located in Las Vegas, Nevada, ZIP code 89109. Donors there gave about $338,000 for every $200,000-income household in the ZIP code. You know who filed campaign contributions from ZIP code 89109? Mr. Sheldon Adelson.

In tenth place is 90067, right next to Beverly Hills High, one of those ZIP codes that Greuel was referring to. By way of pointing out how excessive Adelson's influence was in 2012, the average donation per $200,000-households in 90067 was only $23,000. ("Only.")

If you look at the number of donations in 2012, it's a bit different. In first place is 20004, a Capitol Hill ZIP code from which a lot of people make campaign contributions. 90067 drops to 23rd in terms of number of contributions-per-household, which is another reason it makes such a good ATM: more bang for the buck. Or, I guess, vice versa.

Let's skip ahead to 2014. The extent of donations pales in comparison to 2012, of course, both because we're early in the cycle (the FEC lists donations from 2013 and 2014 in this data) and because it's less exciting than a presidential race. At this point, 90067 is in second place in terms of donation-amount-per-wealthy-household, behind San Francisco's 94111. Leading the number of contributions (again, per household) is Fort Worth (76102), followed, interestingly, by Detroit (48213).

Now the important information. Politicians, here are some of the ZIP codes that are underperforming on donations this cycle relative to the number of wealthy households they contain.

  • Grafton, Ohio (44044). 555 $200,000-income households (and close to the Cleveland airport!)
  • Atlanta, Texas (75551). 297 wealthy households
  • Scranton, Pennsylvania (18504). 610 wealthy households
  • Tappan, New York (10983). 469 wealthy households
  • Pawnee, Illinois (62558) (yes, really). 553 wealthy households

But, really, any of the little tiny blue men or blue dollar signs is an ATM waiting to be tapped. Yes, it's probably nicer to host a fundraiser in an elegant house in Malibu than one outside Scranton, but the checks look exactly the same.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.