We tend to look at the map of primary and caucus wins the way we would a map of the results on the night of a presidential election. This state went for so-and-so and that one went for whos-it. There is a "seductiveness" to it, as Roll Call's Walter Shapiro put it on Twitter on Wednesday, in the way that checking off checkboxes on a list can have an appeal. Texas is in, goes to so-and-so. Done and done.
Shapiro's comment came in response to a conversation initiated by New York University's Jay Rosen.
As @cshirky points out, the press KNOWS the primary is about amassing delegates, but frames it as if it's about winning states. Why? Sports!
— Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu) March 9, 2016
I'm not sure that interpretation is correct, but it's certainly the case -- perhaps even less than it is on the night of a presidential general election -- that simply filling in the states is not terribly informative.
This is what the two parties's maps look like with each win attributed to the victor. Here, we mean "earned a plurality of the vote" to define "win."
But that's not really what a "win" is in the primaries. A win is earning more delegates. So saying Donald Trump "won" Vermont when he and John Kasich got the same number of delegates misrepresents what actually happened in the state. This is Rosen's point.
A better map, then, would show the scale of the actual win in the state; that is, the net delegate total from each candidate. That map might look something like this.
There's a bit more information in there, but not much.
It also skips over a critical bit of data: The delegates accrued by each candidate. You can think of states as being like precincts on an election night. States come in and the delegates each candidate gets are added to his tally. It's cumulative, not a series of one-offs. We're at about 45 percent reporting right now, under this analogy, and we're getting a sense of where the election is headed. But that doesn't necessarily come through in either map.
Part of the reason that television networks in particular use the colored-in-states method of showing winners and loser on a primary election night is that the delegate calculus is complicated and usually not resolved as soon as a state is called. On the Republican side, delegates are often awarded based on the results in individual congressional districts, which takes time. So the networks put up a state colored according to the winner, which usually at least correlates to the delegate total (at least for the winner). The Post does this, too -- but of course you can click on the state to get more data.
Is the second map better? Maybe. Is there a better way still? Probably. Is it something that would work during a television broadcast? Not necessarily.
It's also worth pointing out that a map of the counties or precincts in an election that slowly fills in on election night doesn't necessarily capture the depth of the contest either. We may simply be trying to fit too much into a necessarily limited visual system. Maybe we shouldn't show a traditional map at all.
But what fun is that?