Sorry, you need to enable JavaScript to visit this website.

Red states, blue states

Red states, blue states

Same colours, different story. America’s first electoral map appeals to Susan Schulten

Same colours, different story. America’s first electoral map appeals to Susan Schulten

susan schulten | May/June 2014

When it was published in 1883, “Scribner’s Statistical Atlas of the United States” was larger and more ambitious than anything the world had seen. Its pages were filled with dazzling maps that profiled the nation and its resources in rich colour. Today it’s still catnip to the cartophiliac.

I reread the atlas just after the 2012 election season had left maps of red and blue America swirling in my head. Maybe it was the timing, but as I turned the pages I noticed something I had missed before: tucked into an unassuming section on political history was a map from 1880—the first American attempt to map the outcome of an election.

The Popular Vote map was the creation of Henry Gannett, superintendent of the census and future president of the National Geographic Society. It was the first map to use shading techniques to visualise American political behaviour. I was struck by the spatial patterns: the dense chequerboard of eastern counties contrasting sharply with the open crazy-quilt patchwork out West. Then my eye was drawn to the patterns of colour in the eastern states. Just as now, red and blue were used to show which party had prevailed in each county.

The map even looked a little like the 2012 electoral picture, with a preponderance of blue through what we now regard as the Democratic stronghold of the north-east, and red spilling across the Republican South. It took a minute to see that the colours were reversed: here red represents the Democrats and blue the Republicans. So while the map looks familiar, the political landscape has flipped.

It was a reflection of the times. In 1880, America was still reeling from the civil war. Congressional Republicans—heirs to the party of Lincoln and the Union—had passed several Reconstruction policies to secure the rights of freed slaves and develop their own political constituencies in the South. This prompted resistance by southern whites, who turned to the Democratic Party.

The other big issue of the day was the tariff, a Republican-led effort to promote American industry over European imports in a bid to stimulate the domestic economy after the depression of the 1870s. Although tariffs appealed to those whose fortunes were tied to industry, for farmers they simply seemed to raise the cost of living. More southern whites turned towards the Democratic Party, painting the South largely pink and red.

One reader in the 1880s excitedly reviewed this map as a new way to study electoral behaviour. Armed with it, you could build a geographical picture of why some Arkansans voted Republican while their neighbours did not: perhaps the topography or climate shaped the character of these counties, or they had an industry that was sensitive to tariffs.

And then a new wind swept through American politics, repainting the map. In the 1930s, Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats built a countrywide coalition with their New Deal that aimed to lift the shrouds of the Great Depression. The coalition began to fracture when the Democrats shifted their support behind civil-rights legislation in the 1960s, alienating many southern white voters who found themselves more at home in the Republican Party. The shift was nearly complete by the time Richard Nixon was elected president in 1968.

But it was not until the election of 2000 that NBC’s “Today” show indelibly fixed the colours of American politics: red for the Republicans and blue for the Democrats. ~ Susan Schulten

Readers' comments

Sign in or Create your account to join the discussion.