What we can learn from a 130-year-old electoral map

August 11

Historian and professor Susan Schulten stumbled onto an 1880 electoral map in her research last year, buried in an 1883 book called Scribner's Statistical Atlas of the United States. The Library of Congress has digitized the whole book, and it's dripping with statistical tables and maps outlining the state of the still-incomplete nation.

But the electoral map -- the first in a three-election series -- caught Schulten's eye.

She wrote about it for The New Republic on Monday.

The map may not look advanced today, but in 1883 it broke new ground by enabling Americans to visualize the spatial dynamics of political power. Readers responded enthusiastically. ... [T]he map revealed spatial patterns and relationships that might otherwise remain hidden, or only known anecdotally.

For the modern observer, one immediate thing jumps out: This looks a lot like the way we imagine our modern presidential map to look. Blue states in the Northeast, red states in the South. A bright blue Utah is an anomaly, sure, but the rest matches up neatly.

The next thing that jumps out is that the colors have been swapped. Blue, on the Scribner's map, denotes Republicans, as did most maps in the media prior to the 2000 election. (Here's that history.) But we don't have readily available maps showing a county-by-county breakdown with the colors reversed.

So we made one.

Here's what the 2012 electoral map looks like by county, once you swap red and blue. It breaks your brain a little so, we've included the "normal" red-blue orientation just one click away.

When you look at it this way, you can see just how different the two maps are. The South has gone from Democratic to Republican almost uniformly. Even the parts of the South that were Republican in 1880 have now flipped to Democratic (see the smattering of counties across the middle of Georgia and Alabama). And we can see the areas that haven't changed -- upstate New York, the upper Midwest -- and Utah, still as boldly Republican blue as it was 134 years ago.

Philip Bump writes about politics for The Fix. He is based in New York City.
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Team Fix · August 11