I love maps, especially ones of election results. They fascinate me, and in fact are the reason I started following politics around the 2004 presidential election. However, too often they're just not very good. The red/blue dichotomy tells us who won, but nothing else. Even giving different shades of red or blue doesn't do enough, as not all land is created equal. Most attempts to fix this problem involve distorting the shape of states or counties until they're hardly recognizable. With that in mind, and with a question I wanted to answer, I set out to make maps of various states in order to understand how their voting patterns changed between 2004 and 2012 in a more serious manner than just looking at PVI shifts. In doing so, I also wanted to see which pieces of conventional wisdom are or aren't true. For example, the media has always said the Denver Suburbs were decisive in turning Colorado from red to purple, but is that true? You can find that out and a whole bunch more below the fold.
Colorado was the first state I examined because I am a Westerner and the other option, Nevada, is pretty boring because so much of the population lives in Clark County. I created this map:
What it is may be a bit confusing at first. Any elections nerd knows that El Paso County, home of Colorado Springs, is never blue come election day. What this map shows is the change in margin of victory (or loss) between John Kerry's 2004 campaign and Barack Obama's 2012 one. The darker the color, the bigger the improvement, not in percentage terms, but in raw votes. So let's examine some things on the map.
1) Where did the biggest improvement come? Denver. That shouldn't be too surprising; Denver trails only Jefferson County in terms of votes. All the big improvements came in populated areas, since there are far more people there. It would be surprising if this were not the case.
2) Where did Romney actually do better than Bush? (remember this is in raw votes, so in a fast growing area like Douglas County, Romney can do better than Bush without equaling his percent of the vote) Not many places. Douglas County, the wealthiest in the state. Mesa County, home to Grand Junction. And a dozen or so rural counties, including the heavily Mormon ones in the Northwest, all of which are very sparsely populated.
3) What places outperformed their share of the population in terms of improvement? This can't be answered by the map, but I've also created a spreadsheet. Denver and Boulder Counties are the two big places; Denver makes up 12% of the votes but 21% of Obama's improvement, while Boulder is 7%/10%. Adams and Arapahoe Counties were also good for Democrats.
4) What places underperformed? The rural counties, as was true in almost every state; 15% of the population (the West is far more urbanized than people give it credit for) but only 7% of the gain. Mesa and Douglas Counties did as well.
5) So what about those Denver Suburbs? Well, the suburban counties are 38% of the votes. And they made up...39% of the improvement for Team Blue. So really, the pundits are wrong; they could just as easily have pointed to El Paso County (11%/11%) or Larimer County (7%/8%) as areas that have made Colorado blue. Really, it's been almost every part of the state helping out, with Denver and Boulder leading the way, but every sizable county other than Mesa and Douglas helping out.
Now let's move on to North Carolina, another state that has gotten bluer in the past 8 years, at least on a presidential level.
1) What can we see at first glance? Well, there are far more areas that got redder in raw terms since 2004, and they tend to be in the Whiter Western half of the state. The Big 3 (Research Triangle, Charlotte, and the Triad) all had big improvements for Democrats, although it's hard to know if that's merely due to their size. Finally, even though the Eastern part of the state tends to be the part though of as more conservaDem, Obama only fell off from Kerry in some fast-growing beach counties and Johnston County, home to Research Triangle suburbs.
2) What do we not see? On a "normal" map of the shift from 2004 to 2012, Appalachian North Carolina would be very red due to its rapid PVI shift. We don't see that here, because most of those counties have very few people.
3) What areas improved for Democrats more than one would expect from their populations, and vice versa? Well, mainly the "Big 3" I just named. Countywise, Mecklenburg, Durham, Wake, Guilford, Cumberland, and Forsyth Counties, in that order. That's probably not the order pundits would talk about it on CNN Decision 2012.
4) Where did Republicans overperform? Rural areas, clearly. Suburban counties showed improvement as well in most cases, no matter whether in the Triad, the Research Triangle, or Charlotte; this is mainly due to growth rather than PVI shift. But that's why I made this diary; to show why looking at PVI shift can be misleading.
Finally, Virginia, and then I'll stop before you leave the diary out of annoyance at its length.
Note that when feasible, I assigned independent cities to the counties they seemed to fit best with; the exceptions were Richmond, the Tidewater Area, and Lynchburg.
1) What can we see right away? Firstly, Virginia mirrors North Carolina pretty well; the Western part has improved for Republicans, although some of the shades of red are darker here. Also, we can see that Northern Virginia is dominant. However, the Tidewater area is very underrated; it provided 32% of Virginia's blue shift while NoVa provided 43%. Adjusting for population, it's actually the fastest bluing part of the state. Richmond and some of the larger towns (Charlottesville, Petersburg, Roanoake) also perform well.
2) Where are the pundits right and where are they wrong? The pundits, partially because they all live there, tout NoVa. And to some extent it's true. But as I said above, there's more. It's not just Tidewater, but also the Richmond Area (19% of growth/13% of population). And in fact, Loudoun County performs no better than expected; it's only Fairfax and Prince William that have blued faster than the state has.
3) Suburban growth is helping Republicans less here than North Carolina, for whatever reason. Only one suburban county (Hanover) is red on this map.
Let me know what you think in the comments, and feel free to add local input or your own thoughts on these maps!