Cartographers at the University of Michigan have been exploring the boundaries between truth and fact in the US presidential election results. They've returned with a kaleidoscopic vision rather than a clear picture.
Based on post-election TV images -- and Bush administration spin -- the nation seems awash in Republican red ideology, from Florida to Alaska. The blue Democratic states are isolated at the margins, along the west coast, across the northern midwest and down the Atlantic seaboard to Washington.
The parcelling of the country into red and blue served TV's need to communicate results in shorthand as they came in. By the next morning, the TV news had moved on, but the two-tone map lived on as a distorted image of the electorate's decision.
At least that's how the Michigan mapmakers saw it, because vast sections won by the Republicans have very few people. The state of Wyoming, the mappers point out in a paper distributed on the internet last week (www-personal.umich.edu/~mejn/election/), has a land area 60 times that of Rhode Island, but fewer than half as many people.
The three researchers, Michael Gastner, Cosma Shalizi and Mark Newman, drafted a new red-blue map that showed election results county by county. Predictably, this diluted the intensity of the TV maps, but it left large swaths of red in rural areas and relatively few counties colored blue, many of them in densely packed urban centers.
They then corrected first for the relative population size, county by county. Then they turned their computers on redrafting the map adjusting for these changes based on size of population. Finally, they adjusted the color intensity, red or blue being reserved only for those counties where the respective candidate received 70 percent or more of the vote. In the rest of the country, a purple hue in varying intensities suggested the relative proportion of the vote split. Computer-generated images portray an abstract landmass of red and blue for counties dominated by one party or the other, with shades of purple reflecting the relative intensity of voting for one or the other.
Boundaries not so clear
The result is far more of a blend than television created on the night of the election. The researchers relied on the same facts as the television networks, but they arrived at a different truth than either the professional lip-flappers or the spinmeisters.
Fact: the Bush-Cheney ticket received about 3 million more votes than the Kerry-Edwards team, out of 115 million cast.
Fact: the Republicans won a majority of the electoral college votes.
Truth: The country is more complicated than that.
So did the moral values of evangelical Christians give US President George W. Bush a mandate to extend his revolutionary policies at home and abroad? The redrafting yielded an ink-blot shape made up of red and blue swirls, like the batter for a marble cake into which too much food coloring had been spilled. Rhode Island becomes twice the size of Wyoming, reflecting a population of 1.1 million as against Wyoming's 493,000, but then Wyoming won't mind because the abstract image makes it impossible to find Rhode Island.
"The cartogram reveals what we know already from the news, that the country was actually very evenly divided by the vote, rather than being dominated by one side or the other," the authors wrote. Of the television map, they said: "The amount of red on the map is skewed because there are a lot of counties in which only a slim majority voted Republican."