The pinnacle of a US Presidential election is the peak of months on end of campaigning, cold-calling and controversy. It is a 24 hour period in which the path of a nation is decided based on a simply astonishing number of factors whittled down to a simple choice between red or blue.
Equally astonishing is the number of instant sources by which I, an Irish guy perched on my couch 3000 miles away, can follow the election as the exit polls and results come in. Though not my first choice these days, frequently not even my 3rd choice, I chose to watch live TV coverage, flicking between CNN, FOX and ABC. Though each gave their own spin on how the night would unfold, one common challenge united all. How best to explain, predict and share information and results from 50 states, over 3,000 counties and a ballot of some 116m voters? In essence, how to tell the story of the election as easily as possible.
These are big numbers and big challenges. However, on a night where consensus was hard to find amongst voters, analysts, strategists and news stations, the clear and unanimous answer to this one particular question was to use maps.
Maps were everywhere and utilized by every station and media outlet. Some were hand-drawn while others used mapping software and spanned 50 foot walls in cavernous TV studios. All served a common purpose; to clearly and quickly tell the story of the exit polls and results at local and national levels.
At eSpatial, we understand and are familiar with how maps and mapping software can highlight unseen trends and patterns in data, give instant access to results and predictions at micro and macro levels, how maps can clearly and concisely tell the story. But there was a difference last night; maps were the story.
Maps took precedence over analysts, strategists and many other sacred cows that are typically allowed to speak at length and uninterrupted. Frequently, as raw data was released, interviews were cut in order to place a map front and centre. The reason for this was simple, the map was the result. Instantly, without poring over spreadsheets and tomes of text, viewers could see what way the country was voting based on the color of a state. Sometimes, states were too close to call. This, again, lead to the news stations showing a map of the state in play and then drilling down to see the counties and their respective numbers, again colored red, blue and grey indicating Democrat, Republican and too close to call. In a matter of seconds news presenters could compare this with any election result in modern US election history and the viewer could spot historical red vs. blue patterns in a matter of seconds. Demographic maps were used to predict likely results based on gender, age, race and any number of other factors. All conveyed their message instantaneously and with great impact.
In fact, these historical and demographic maps were some of the final nails in the coffin of the challenger’s campaign. As it became clear that the only uncounted counties left in the state of Ohio were historically solid Democratic territories, the election was called for the incumbent in a matter of seconds. One former presidential advisor argued at length with a team of statisticians about the prediction. In the end, a map put the argument to bed. That same map put me to bed, at 5:45AM Irish time. There was simply no more debate. Despite the vagaries of the electoral college system, the proliferation of one color over another on a map was the final page in this story of 116m ballots, 52 states and more than 3000 counties; distilled onto a single, powerful, image generated by the combination of raw data and mapping software.