Democrats can't help wincing at the sight of the color-coded electoral map, covered in red with only a few specks of blue in the far west and northeast parts of the country. Even more disheartening are the maps that show voting results by county -- the entire U.S. seems to have gone stark raving red.
However, according to three physicists at the University of Michigan, the standard maps being used by the media tell only part of the election story, and their tales are misleading. "People were complaining that the electoral map you see on TV is much more red than blue, but almost the same number of people voted each way," says physics professor Mark Newman. In reality, many sprawling red states are inhabited by relatively small numbers of people, while some of the tiny blue states are very densely populated. "Looking at normal vote maps, you'd see more red than blue, but that's just the area on the ground -- it's not [the candidate] who got more votes," Newman says. And since an election is determined by the number of people who vote, not the number of acres they own, it's one time when size really doesn't matter.
Newman worked with postdoctoral research fellow Cosma Shalizi and doctoral student Michael Gastner to create a more accurate picture of the election results. To do this, they used cartograms, or maps in which the size of states are rescaled according to their population numbers, and are drawn to reflect inhabitants. On a cartogram, Rhode Island's 1.1 million residents make that state appear twice the size of Wyoming, which is home to only about half a million people. Gastner then wrote a computer program to match up each resized state with the correct number of Republican and Democratic votes.
The Web page with these maps went live over the weekend, and is quickly making its rounds on the Internet. Newman claims, with his British accent, that these cartograms, and the computer programming behind them, were not fueled by partisan fervor -- in fact, "the original idea had nothing to do with politics or the election." The physicists were actually working on a different project involving cartograms, but friends and colleagues convinced them that their techniques would be a useful way to interpret the results of this election. The group agreed. "This is a more correct representation of where the people are who are voting," Newman says. "That's a comforting thing for Democrats, there's no question about it."
When the electoral map of the USA is shown in a population cartogram, it looks more like a fish than the familiar headless cow: the skinny northeastern nub swells in size (and in blue color), and the Pacific Northwest juts out like a big blue fin. Many of the red states in the middle and southern parts of the country appear twisted and shrunken (except for Florida, which has become engorged with people). But while this map more accurately reflects the country's 51-49 percent electorate split, the country as a whole still appears to be dominated by the color red. Another cartogram takes the process one step further: It maps county-level election results by population. This cartogram makes USA Today's nearly monochromatic map look marbled with fat streaks of blue.
The most intriguing map is a tricolored cartogram that shows county-level results by population in precise detail. Counties where Republicans got 100 percent of the vote are red, counties that went 100 percent Democratic are blue, but the counties where the vote was split are a bluish-red blend.
This version of the map depicts the USA as a mostly purple, fish-shaped country with many thin bands of red and big clusters of blue in urban areas. It's a completely different way to view the decisions Americans made last Tuesday, and shows that America's true colors are closer to ambivalent purple than solid blue or red.