Saturday, November 01, 2008

Paint by Numbers

During this election season, hardcore political junkies are finding themselves online looking at polling maps that can change so rapidly that hitting the "refresh" button may bring up a slightly different result as Barack Obama seems to be gaining ground on the tally of electoral votes. I'm interested in the particular kind of information aesthetics that stems from the "red state"/"blue state" distinction that was allegedly coined on Meet the Press, where the standardized color scheme supposedly originated.

Now computer users have a number of choices in red/blue mapping. What is also interesting to note is how different shades of yellow have become associated with political neutrality in toss-up states. The CNN Map emphasizes the personalization associated with the second person pronoun where "You Call the Race" and you map out "Your Election Prediction." One can even very improbably turn all of the states for one candidate or another to create a monochromatic result.
The map, which is much cited in the political blogosphere, includes an FAQ that explains such nuanced statistical distinctions as the difference between "simple averages" and "regression trend lines." A staff of polling experts and analysts interprets charts with new numbers on a daily basis. For example, today Mark Blumenthal said he didn't see any changes to the map, since "apples and oranges" comparisons offered little more than "random noise." On each map, the viewer can also pull down a number of "tools" that includes third-party candidates in the mix, filters results to privilege particular kinds of polling in the telephone vs. Internet landscape, and provides "trend smoothing" for the representation of the actual line connecting dots.

I've been mostly looking at the electoral map for the New York Times, which offers a wide variety of polling data on the battleground states and provides a more muted color scheme along with reminders about historical precedents and the context of candidates' performance in local races.

There are also cruder pro-am offerings with less fluid interfaces, such as, although it offers a long FAQ and detailed explanation of the mechanics of polling.

And, of course, Internet giant Google offers a gallery of electoral maps with its signature location balloons and satellite views.

Update: The Economist uses red-blue mapping for "Our final take on the swing states" to retroactively tint previous landslides with the current color schema. Since I tend to follow the New York Times, my doomsday scenario is that Obama loses Pennsylvania and the swing states, and we end up with a tie and then this happens to resolve it, and we get a tie again after the electors vote in the state capitals.

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