How Ancient Plankton Elected Obama

Despite all the polls and punditry, only a few things can be predicted with absolute certainty about today’s election, including that they will (eventually, perhaps) produce a winner, a loser, and a slew of electoral cartography for CNN’s John King to play around with on a touch screen. On election night, experts — whether or ...


Despite all the polls and punditry, only a few things can be predicted with absolute certainty about today’s election, including that they will (eventually, perhaps) produce a winner, a loser, and a slew of electoral cartography for CNN’s John King to play around with on a touch screen.

On election night, experts — whether or not of the armchair variety — will be poring over map after map of the states as they fall in the two main candidates’ columns, and comment on patterns reversed or confirmed.

The political class’s obsession with maps is a fleeting one, limited to the pre- and post-game analysis of elections. In the United States, the geographic battle lines are well known. The main questions: Will the 2012 results deepen the dichotomy between “red states” — a contiguous bloc of Republican-voting states that covers most of the country — and “blue states,” a disparate collection of pro-Democrat enclaves bordering the Great Lakes and both coasts? Or will either color make inroads into the other side’s territory? Maybe an unexpected new configuration of red and blue will emerge, perhaps resembling older geographic voting patterns?

Interpreting such voting patterns is the main business of political geography, a discipline that studies the strange marriage of geographical accident to the (relative) predictability of political preference.

Frank Jacobs

The Beast of the East

The mascot of this particular discipline itself is a hybrid of politics and geography: the gerrymander, a species of monster first spotted in Massachusetts in 1812. In January of that year, Republican governor Elbridge Gerry authorized an electoral redistricting which would favor his party’s candidates over those of the Federalist Party in upcoming elections for State Senate.

The public outcry over the governor’s decision fastened unto a particularly contorted new district in Essex County, dubbed a Gerry-mander, a portmanteau of salamander and the name of the embattled governor (who, despite his efforts, would not win re-election). Pro-Federalist newspapers like The Boston Gazette and The Repertory & General Advertiser circulated a cartoon of the district, ornamented with fearsome claws, demonic wings, and a dragon-like head. The term has been in constant use ever since: See, for example, Illinois’ 4th Congressional District, a.k.a. “The Earmuffs,” designed to contain two Hispanic-majority areas in Chicago.

Gerrymandering is not limited to the United States, however; any democracy plagued by the practice of changing electoral borders to create advantages (and disadvantages) at the ballot box practices it. The Germans call it Wahlkreisschiebung (fiddling the constituency), in France it’s known as charcutage électoral (electoral mangling), while the Icelanders prefer the euphemistic kjördæmahagræðing (constituency optimizing).

The redrawing of electoral borders is but one reason to be mindful of the geographic angle in elections. A map of the results can illuminate much more than the overall percentages gained by the candidates. Sometimes, that map is a palimpsest, unwittingly revealing ancient fault lines beneath the surface of what seems a mere political contest. Presidential elections, with their polarizing one-on-one tendency, are best suited for this kind of cartographic archeology.

Public Domain

A Tale of Two Ukraines

Few elections were as polarized as Ukraine’s 2004 presidential poll. Pitting two Viktors against each other — the pro-western Yushchenko and the pro-Russian Yanukovich — the result of the first run-off, showing a win for Yanukovich, produced a wave of protest. Dubbed the Orange Revolution, the protests forced a replay of the run-off, this time won by Yushchenko.

But rather than place Ukraine safely in the western camp, Yushchenko’s slight victory (52 percent) ultimately proved reversible; Ukraine’s current president is the other Viktor. The electoral map shows how the tug of war between east and west plays out within Ukraine’s own borders: Yanukovich’s support is based in the industrial east and south, home to most of the country’s Russian minority. Yushchenko only won districts in Ukraine’s north and west, the traditional heartland of Ukrainian nationalism. The electoral divide has the country oscillating between westernizing and easternizing tendencies, perhaps only to be resolved when the country finds a way to harmonize both — or when the perceived border between east and west shifts its course once more.


Old Habits Die Hard

Explanations are harder to find for one of Poland’s more persistent political fault lines. The results of the 2007 legislative elections, pitting the (pro-free market) PO party [in orange] against the (more populist) PiS party [in blue] produces a close fit with the old border between the German Empire and the Russian Empire. Both borders disappeared decades ago, and World War II and its aftermath have radically changed the ethnic composition of the region, with Germans pushed out and Poles moving west.

And yet there it is: The current map of Poland acts as a palimpsest, showing an older layer when held up against the light of an electoral result. Could it be that the Poles in the orange region, who settled there more recently, chased from their own homes further east, are less rooted in tradition, and hence vote for more progressive parties? Could it be that the largely urban infrastructure they inherited infers other social and electoral patterns than the largely rural environment in Poland’s blue bits?

Strange Maps

Revenge of the Huguenots

For France, the case is clearer. This map shows the results of the first round of France’s presidential elections of 2007, pitting the right-wing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy against socialist figurehead Ségolène Royal, with François Bayrou representing the squeezed center. While Bayrou only managed to win in his home département of Pyrennées-Atlantiques, Royal won 25 and Sarkozy 74 out of a total of 100 départements (9 overseas, and 91 in “metropolitan,” or continental France).

Sarkozy subsequently went on to handily win the second round, but even in a three-horse race, this electoral map of France shows a remarkable dichotomy: Sarkozy won in the north, east, and south-east, but the clear winner in Brittany and the southwest was Royal. Again, this is an old and oft-repeated voting pattern: the east and north vote conservative, while the southwest, the west, and parts of Paris vote socialist. Here, as in the case of Ukraine, geography seems to reflect the two opposing ends of the political spectrum.

Explanations for this split reach back to the southwest’s long tradition of radical socialism, a tradition rooted not just in the convulsions of the French Revolution, but all the way back to 1685 and the repeal of the Act of Toleration. This led to the obliteration of the Huguenot heartlands in the southwest, which may have instilled strong anti-clerical, anti-monarchist tendencies that are still determining electoral outcomes today.


King Cotton

But geography’s effect on elections extends back even further into the past. In 2008, Obama lost a swathe of southern states to Republican contender John McCain, but if you drill down to county level, a remarkable blue streak cuts through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. This pattern makes no apparent sense, unless you link it to an agricultural map from the 1860s — showing where cotton was king. Those areas are still heavily populated by the descendants of the slaves once forced to work the cotton fields; the African-American voting bloc behind Obama that helped him win 2008 — if not in the aforementioned southern states. The reason cotton grew best where it did goes back about 100 million years to the Cretaceous Era. Back then, the cotton belt was a coastal area, and the graveyard of untold billions of single-celled creatures called plankton. Their dead bodies would become the chalk deposits upon which cotton would thrive.

If electoral cartography can explain how to link dead plankton to votes for Obama in 2008, what will the new maps that will pop up after tonight’s election say?  

Paul Downey, Allen Gathman

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