Different names for the same thing: Visualizing the 2012 election

Did you know that there was a major American election on Tuesday? Great. Let us all never speak of it again. At least for the next 3.5 years.

But before we send the parts of our brains that care about politics off to recuperate at a nice imaginary spa, take a quick look at a page of election maps put together by University of Michigan physics professor Mark Newman. He studies complex systems, including the networks of human relationships and decision-making that go into election results. His page of maps shows several different ways to visualize the same 2012 presidential election data — methods which provide different pieces of context that you don't normally see in the simple state-by-state map.

The basic map — the one you see on TV and in the newspaper — doesn't really tell you the whole story. It gives you no idea of population density (a factor that obviously matters a lot in tallying the popular vote), and it only shows the winning party in each state. In reality, the vote is seldom all-Democrat or all-Republican. There's a gradient, no matter where you live.

The map above takes both those factors into account — distorting the country to make the more populous parts larger, and showing split turnouts in shades of purple.

See all Mark Newman's maps at his website

And here's his FAQ

Thanks, Rick Musser!


  1. I think these size-distorted maps are pretty useless in showing the actual population density of these areas. I’d like to see a 3D topographical map by population density that doesn’t distort the geography of the country, but shows political leaning in color and population in depth. 

    There’s more data than two axes and a color can show, guys! And you can do a third dimension pretty easily now, that’s how the Internet works.

    This site shows some maps similar to what I’m talking about: http://courses.washington.edu/gis250/lessons/3d/index.html This extruded map is basically it, but my dream map is by county or more detailed and is colored by vote counts: http://courses.washington.edu/gis250/lessons/3d/exercise/images/capture_11182004_011645.gif

  2. That’s it, that’s the map I’ve been looking for!  I’ve seen the maps with the states skewed by population, and the maps broken down by county, but not skewed by county.  And now also I know where all the black people live in the deep south.

    Heh, what does it say that you can see borders of San Francisco County on a thumbnail sized map?

  3. We won’t be speaking of the presidential election for a while because campaigning for the 2014 midterm elections begins tomorrow. Enjoy!

  4. So much for those Southerners who (I’m not making this up) complain that the electoral college is Lincoln’s “punishment” for the Civil War. The South, like the rest of the country, has some pretty broad swaths of purple and some very distinctly blue patches.

  5. pretty sure this is Atlanta.  the vertical line is where I-75 and 85 run concurrent and the rest of it can be read like a street/county/neighborhood map, too.

    edit: actually, i think the vertical line is just the edge of Fulton county. but yeah, the “blue dot in a sea of red” is no joke

  6. I suspected the country was far more purple than the bobbleheads at Faux could ever be arsed to imagine.

  7. Sort of looks like the bald eagle of righteous capitalism attacking the sapsucker of creeping socialism, don’t it?

  8. Tuesday night when I saw the electoral map, I was inspired to google a map of the US by concentration of college graduates
    There’s a remarkable correlation, with the most D outliers being areas with high latino populations in the southwest, concentrations of blacks in the south, or rustbelt workers in the midwest.  When you see a lonely blue dot on the election map, it’s almost always a university town. (disclosure, I don’t have degree)

    This partly explains how the GOP can continue to get rural people to vote against their own interests

  9. What’s so interesting is that it pretty clearly looks like a *blue* map with a web of red stretched out over it. It really seems like the underlying color is blue, and the red is a layer of color on top.

    I guess the reason for this must just be that blue tends to form “pockets” around urban areas, and the red fills in all the spaces in between. Then the brain, trying to imagine both colors as contiguous, places the blue color beneath the red. I bet it would be really interesting to model this hypothesis and see if it gets the same result.

    Never-the-less, I like the (inaccurate) metaphor it seems to be suggesting that we’re really a “blue” country underneath.

    1. if the mapmaker had swapped red for democrat and blue for republican, you would still read this particular map as blue underneath.  this has everything to do with how the mind processes color and nothing to do with this election.

      anyone who took 9th grade Art I could tell you this, but you know, humanities classes are useless liberal wastes of time….

      1. It could also be explained by a physicist, but they are liberals who worship science instead of God so we can’t listen to them either.

      2. Um, no, you’re entirely ignoring what I was saying about the difference between pockets of color and contiguous color in order to make some unreferenced point about art classes.

        You can import the image into your favorite image manipulation application and change all the hues, and it still looks like the “Republican” color is on top of the other color. Indeed, it looks to me like a cobweb stretched over the other shape.

        Here it is with red as the bottom color and green as the top: http://www.concord.org/~sfentress/usa-colors.png. Tell me that doesn’t look like a green cobweb.

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