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.”

Too right.

Postscript on 8th November 2012: the 2012 election maps are now done, and here is the 2012 county cartogram.

Join the conversation! 25 Comments

  1. this is wonderful – thank you!

  2. I was hoping for the county scale cartogram when I came here and there it is. Thanks!

  3. This was a very interesting article! I am still a little puzzled about the claim that we are not a divided nation considering the popular vote tally, which was 50% to 48% with Obama leading. That seems pretty divided to me…

  4. What a load..

  5. This is the most cogent visual argument against the electoral college I have ever seen.

  6. Yes, I love the new perspective! Really shows our interconnectedness!

  7. At last THE intelligent answer to the usual superficial “divided country” comments! Made brilliantly graphic, so even slower thinkers can hopefully get it.

  8. Ha! The 2012 county cartogram looks like an eagle. 😉

  9. Lolz the red and blue make the maps look 3D on my phone

  10. hmmmmmm…..actually it shows we are divided….virtually and literally in half! Half red, half blue. Its the most heavily populated areas that live in cities, shop in cities and breath in cities that override the vote for those of us in rural areas that live, shop and breath the angst of policy makers on farming, ranching, logging and the main body of agriculture that keep this country running. Its those who move from cities to the rural areas keeping their same city ideals, who decide they cannot stand the smell of our farms and ranches and cause havoc for those who’s families were here long before they ever even came into existence. They continue to vote according to ideals that don’t protect the area they have chosen to live in. They believe in how they vote, they think they are voting for the environment and the trees and the health of the land, but what they don’t seem to understand is those using the land are the best stewards of the land….they have to be, otherwise they would not be able to make a living. They listen to and are taken in by pictures that are made up, or of one particular bad egg and they rally their friends and money and fight against what they don’t truly understand. They may live rurally but they cannot see the forest for the trees. They pass those pictures and stories and lies to their friends in the cities and most populated areas and those living rurally are looked down upon, frowned on, despised and voted against. Just where do you think your food will come from if you keep that up? I’ll tell you,….. Somewhere else! Canada, Mexico, Argentina, China, Russia….etc……. We don’t vote against you because we are rightest, self-righteous, religious zealots who believe guns, drilling and clear cutting are the way to go. We vote against you because we want to keep our way of life. Living off of the land that we care for and love as you do your children. Protecting the land the best way possible so less of it will sustain more of you. Protecting our way of life so our children will grow up with work ethic and love for this country and strength and courage that only comes from backbreaking hard work and the wonderful challenge of raising cattle, and wheat and corn and sheep so you can shop and eat and live and breath. Look more closely at your map….we are divided. We are living in separate mind sets, most of us NOT far right or far left but just trying to find ground in the middle that continues to stay fertile and strong.

    • Cora, I have been thinking of your comment for several days. You pose an interesting and valid insight into the life situations that differentiate us. I choose that word rather than divide, because I believe that we are united by our humanity more than divided by our life environments. Although I live in a major city (Miami) I have emotional and spiritual ties to the land-oriented life, both from a cattle-ranching childhood and present ties to Appalachia, where we don’t live but own land (no house — we camp) and share friendships with our neighbors who do farm and otherwise live from the bounty of the forest.
      I wish there were a way for Americans (red and blue) to get to know each other and share their struggles and triumphs. It’s true that backbreaking work and closeness to the land build character and courage. We who live in the city don’t have those experiences. We do, however, need courage and strength to faithfully complete mind-numbing or stressful jobs. To drive a bus full of tired commuters, to continue serving hamburgers when we need to sleep, or even to grind through massive Excel spreadsheets so our employer can stay afloat.
      What can we do to mend this divide? There is no substitute for personal contact, but reticence or shyness prevents this in many cases. This summer we shared a 10-hour van drive to the Peruvian cloud forest with some birdwatchers from rural Iowa, during which we shared details of our lives with each other, as well as our common love of a glorious environment. I have breakfasted with our boy scout troop at a local eatery on one of the dirt roads in Colorado without sharing a word of conversation with the ranchers who were also eating there. Many Sundays my husband and I lunch outdoors on South Beach, see the heartland tourists walking by (you can tell them by their pale skin and modest dress), but never dare to say “Hi, won’t you join us for a sandwich.”
      I’m just posing a question, and asking for ideas. As I fly from city to city, I am reminded by the beautiful patchwork of farms that there are wonderful people living productive lives to provide us with food. How I would love to meet some of them! We are all Americans united by interdependence and love of our country. I agree with you that we should find solid meeting ground.

  11. Alaska and Hawaii aren’t part of the US anymore?

  12. Excellent – very thoughtful. Edward Tufte would love this….

  13. I always knew this but, lacking the resources, I never thought to flesh it out like this…the 2012 county cartogram looks like a photo from the Hubble telescope… most appropriate, I think.

  14. […] P.S. Mapping politics (and the politics of maps) […]

  15. What this map doesn’t show us (and can’t, because of the limitations of an archaic, 2 party form of democracy), is people’s true values and visions for our politics and government. We can’t see, for example, how many people voted for 3rd parties. Or the “colors” of the people who didn’t vote (about 50% of eligible voters), because neither “red” nor “blue” represented their hopes & beliefs.

  16. looks like someone is tripping

  17. […] do maps affect our understanding of the electorate? Are there better ways to visualize American voting patterns? And will Republicans ever win […]

  18. Love this post. Thanks Ben. Just saw this post too, which morphs the map by ad spending per voter per state. Political economy visualised!


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


Campaigns, Communications, Innovation, Public Policy, Research