The problem with all those ‘patchwork’ Iowa state maps on Caucus night
As you might have seen Tuesday night, a number of news sites showed county-by-county results of the Iowa Caucus as they rolled in late.
But did the maps actually tell us anything? With seven or eight candidates vying for delegates, color palettes were stretched to design limits showing results across Iowa's 99 counties. The effect over much of the evening looked less like political analysis and more like a midwestern-style patchwork quilt.
The New York Times:
The Iowa Republican Party's Google-based map:
The Los Angeles Times:
A fact which caught the eye of pundits, including the New York Times' David Carr.
Plus, the results came in so painfully, painfully late in the evening. Be honest: Did you ride out the evening, watching the colors fill in the little county map icons? Or did you chuck the whole thing to watch yet another overtime finish to a bowl game?
Until enough results came in to allow us to see geographic patterns, I maintain the ubiquitous maps weren't of much use in telling stories. In this New York Times map from around 10:25 Tuesday night, for example -- with only 37 percent of caucus sites reporting -- we see Ron Paul was leading Rick Santorum in Iowa's most populous county, Polk.
Yet, in the end, Mitt Romney carried that county with 28.4 percent of votes cast. Ron Paul finished with 22.6 percent and Santorum came in a close third with 21.6 percent.
For the Iowa Caucus, at least, county maps just didn't help Tuesday night. And they're only marginally helpful the next day, when the vote is in.
The Times maps were the easiest to read and to access. CNN's maps were by far the quickest to update, with data streaming into them a good 10 or 15 minutes before it made its way to most of the other maps I found.
The catch: CNN's maps were -- as we used to say back in Iowa -- butt-ugly and, oddly, stretched horizontally. For the largest portion of the evening, there wasn't even a direct link to them from CNN's main caucus coverage page. Rapidly-updated maps do a reader no good if the reader can't find them.
One step in the right direction was the way The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times included an extra dimension by giving readers the option to view the size of the victory -- or, in this case, the margin so far -- of the leading candidate in each county.
I liked the mouseover boxes the NYT popped up for the reader…
…while the subtle color choices used by the LAT were difficult to see against the grey background map.
The very best graphic to have used last night, I'd argue, would be one that shows simple results. Like a bar chart, for instance. CNN used a bar chart on its home page, but the thickness of the bars made them relatively difficult to read at a glance.
The best bar chart I saw online last night is this one by -- once again -- the New York Times.
The color blocks on the left keyed to the maps I showed you earlier, which were a short scroll downpage.
But the real important info here is that column on the far right: The number of delegates won. At this point in the evening -- 10:18 p.m., with only 48 percent of the votes in -- the Iowa GOP hadn't yet certified any results. But if you look at the chart now, on the day after...
…you see those numbers filled in. Mitt Romney won 13 delegates toward the GOP nomination. Rick Santorum -- only eight votes behind -- finished with 12. No delegates were awarded to the other candidates.
And that's all we really need to know about Tuesday's Iowa Caucus.
Because the caucus isn't about state-by-state, winner-take-all results, like the national presidential race will be in November.
In my opinion, all the energy spent creating -- and viewing and discussing -- the patchwork-like state maps last night was misspent. The Iowa caucus -- and even the Republican primaries to come over the next few weeks -- are about the numbers -- the delegates won -- and not about the counties.
Unless there is something to be learned by maps.
Now, take the maps in today's print edition of the Des Moines Register (click for a readable view):
There are, in fact, a few things we can see right away.
- Romney carried many of the more populated areas.
- Santorum and Paul did better in rural areas. It makes for an impressive display on a map. But all those dark-blue and light-pink counties are sparsely populated.
- While Newt Gingrich (light-blue) didn’t win a single county outright, he finished second in five counties and third in maybe a couple dozen.
- Michelle Bachmann finished second in one county and third in two counties, but didn’t win a single one of Iowa’s 99 counties. No wonder she dropped out of the race today.
And that's just my quick take. Someone who's been working this story for weeks might be able to look at this map and pull out a number of other fascinating talking points, any of which might make for further stories.
But you see what it took to do it: Three maps. That's a lot of real estate -- especially in print.
(And, I might add, kudos to the artist here, Katie Kunert. You can tell by her work that the person who hired her out of college in 2000 must have given her the very best training.)
(Full disclosure: Um, yes, I'm the one who hired and trained her.)
So: What might the rest of us in journalismland take away from all this?
1. During the primaries, focus more on the overall results and less on interactive maps. Unless you have specific stories you might can tell.
2. In other words, think bar charts. Within a week or two, you'll find a second bar chart will become very important. That's the bar chart that shows the cumulative total of delegates won by each candidate throughout primary season.
Here's a modest example of my own from the day after the 2008 Virginia primary. (It's very wide. So again, click for a readable view).
Note the vertical line at the right: Needed to win the nomination. And the bar across the bottom: Delegates yet to be chosen. You don't necessarily need the latter. But you do need the former.
Something like this, really, should suffice for most primaries over the next few weeks:
Votes received. Percent. And delegates awarded. Because each state awards its delegates differently, you might want to add a sentence or two explaining the rules for each primary.
But it can be that simple.
In 2008, I liked previewing each primary day by telling readers what they might expect. And the editors of the Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk -- where I worked as graphics editor during primary season that year -- were kind enough to give me the space to tell those stories. (Once again, click for a larger, readable look.)
For each primary, I listed when the polls close, how many delegates are at stake, how the delegates are awarded and a quick glance at the most recent polls.
Across the bottom is the all-important delegate horserace. Just because we political junkies keep up with these numbers doesn't mean readers will remember them from Tuesday to Tuesday.
And when the big election day comes around in November -- well, I have some ideas on how we all might cover that, as well.
In the meantime, though, there are primaries to deal with. Candidates to track. And readers to inform.
Coming up next:
- Tuesday, Jan. 10: New Hampshire Primary
- Saturday, Jan. 21: South Carolina Primary
- Tuesday, Jan. 31: Florida Primary
Up and at 'em, folks!