So after billions of dollars and several years of hard campaigning, the US elections are finally over. The typical map of the 2012 US election results looks like this:
Which is clearly not a million miles away from the 2008 equivalent.
In these maps, of which there are thousands online, on TV shows and in newspaper reports, the US states are coloured red or blue according to whether the majority of their voters were Republican or Democrat.
These maps, are, of course an illusion. They suggests that the ‘reds’ might have won because there is more red on the map, and that the reds and blues are sharply divided. Typical comments about such maps run along the lines of “what a huge sea of red”, “there you go, the liberal-conservative divide”, “it really is two different countries, isn’t it?”, and so on.
However, these maps fail to take account of some basic realities. First of all, there is no representation of population. The reality is that the population of the red states is on average significantly lower than that of the blue ones. So while the blue are small in area, they represent large numbers of voters. Second, more importantly for the results of elections, the maps take no account of the distribution of electoral college votes. Third, they take no account of the often fine-grained distribution of voter preferences within states.
Mark Newman, a noted complexity researcher, has done a lot of work on how we can get more realistic, less simplistic maps of complex, real-world phenomena. By drawing such cartograms, which enable maps to be re-scaled according to key variables like population, maps of the electoral spread can be made more realistic and detailed. They can also tell different, more subtle, stories about political allegiance.
By the sounds of things, he is busy working right now on maps of the 2012 election. Here is his depiction of the 2008 election using a population cartogram.
In this, the states have been squashed and stretched to give relative sizes while preserving the overall US structure. A similar thing can be done with the electoral college results. In the map below, the map scales the sizes of states to be proportional to their number of electoral votes in 2008.
As Newman writes:
The areas of red and blue on the cartogram are now proportional to the actual numbers of electoral votes won by each candidate. Thus this map shows at a glance both which states went to which candidate and which candidate won more electoral college votes – something that you cannot tell easily from the normal election-night red and blue map.
Newman and his colleagues went further to map the election results by county, the resulting images are even more striking. This is the equivalent of the first map above, with each county coloured red or blue according to the majority vote in 2008.
Again, the red appears to be in the majority. Using a cartogram of population gives this:
All of these maps are however also somewhat fictional as they pay no attention to the fact that no single state is in fact a sea of red or blue. Instead, as this election showed, every county and state contains quite closely balanced numbers of Republican and Democratic supporters. By using only two colours we lose any sense of this balance, and feed the myth of red states and blue states, and of sharp country-wide divides.
Newman and his colleagues have got around this by using red, blue, and shades of purple in between to indicate the nuance in voting patterns: different shades of purple indicate different splits of votes.
This is the county level map with this applied:
And this is the population cartogram:
As Newman explains:
As this map makes clear, large portions of the country are quite evenly divided, appearing in various shades of purple, although a number of strongly Democratic (blue) areas are visible too, mostly in the larger cities. There are also some strongly Republican areas, but most of them have relatively small populations and hence appear quite small on this map.
What I love about this work is that it clearly demonstrates the power of maps and visualisations to shape our thinking. These depictions pose direct and clear challenges to those lazy, pervasive but ultimately unhelpful narratives (“sea of red”, “lib-con divides”, “country of two parts”, etc, etc).
I think that these more realistic, sophisticated representations should become much more commonplace in politics and indeed in development. Mark Newman set up the World Mapper project back in 2006, which has a whole host of similar maps, many of which have been widely used in presentations and reports.
Much of this work owes a debt – of sorts – to the infamous and controversial Gall-Peters projection, which provided a new visualisation of the earth using a more egalitarian and precise calculation of the relative landmass of developing countries.
Along broadly similar lines, a recent guest post on this blog looked at how we might use tools like fitness landscapes to more accurately represent non-linear development progress.
Perhaps such tools could slowly help change the way we think about a whole range of complex, routinely over-simplified, phenomena.
Who knows, one day they may even help inform some less divisive narratives about the US political landscape. As President Obama put it this morning in his acceptance speech:
We are not as divided as our politics suggest. We remain more than a collection of red states and blue states.”
Postscript on 8th November 2012: the 2012 election maps are now done, and here is the 2012 county cartogram.