Mapping the two Americas
Involuntary head-shaking is probably not an intended consequence of data visualization

Political winds and hair styling

Washington Post (link) and New York Times (link) published dueling charts last week, showing the swing-swang of the political winds in the U.S. Of course, you know that the pendulum has shifted riotously rightward towards Republican red in this election.

The Post focused its graphic on the urban / not urban division within the country:


Over Twitter, Lazaro Gamio told me they are calling these troll-hair charts. You certainly can see the imagery of hair blowing with the wind. In small counties (right), the wind is strongly to the right. In urban counties (left), the straight hair style has been in vogue since 2008. The numbers at the bottom of the chart drive home the story.

Previously, I discussed the Two Americas map by the NY Times, which covers a similar subject. The Times version emphasizes the geography, and is a snapshot while the Post graphic reveals longer trends.

Meanwhile, the Times published its version of a hair chart.


This particular graphic highlights the movement among the swing states. (Time moves bottom to top in this chart.) These states shifted left for Obama and marched right for Trump.

The two sets of charts have many similarities. They both use curvy lines (hair) as the main aesthetic feature. The left-right dimension is the anchor of both charts, and sways to the left or right are important tropes. In both presentations, the charts provide visual aid, and are nicely embedded within the story. Neither is intended as exploratory graphics.

But the designers diverged on many decisions, mostly in the D(ata) or V(isual) corner of the Trifecta framework.


The Times chart is at the state level while the Post uses county-level data.

The Times plots absolute values while the Post focuses on relative values (cumulative swing from the 2004 position). In the Times version, the reader can see the popular vote margin for any state in any election. The middle vertical line is keyed to the electoral vote (plurality of the popular vote in most states). It is easy to find the crossover states and times.

The Post's designer did some data transformations. Everything is indiced to 2004. Each number in the chart is the county's current leaning relative to 2004. Thus, left of vertical means said county has shifted more blue compared to 2004. The numbers are cumulative moving top to bottom. If a county is 10% left of center in the 2016 election, this effect may have come about this year, or 4 years ago, or 8 years ago, or some combination of the above. Again, left of center does not mean the county voted Democratic in that election. So, the chart must be read with some care.

One complaint about anchoring the data is the arbitrary choice of the starting year. Indeed, the Times chart goes back to 2000, another arbitrary choice. But clearly, the two teams were aiming to address slightly different variations of the key question.

There is a design advantage to anchoring the data. The Times chart is noticeably more entangled than the Post chart. There are tons more criss-crossing. This is particularly glaring given that the Times chart contains many fewer lines than the Post chart, due to state versus county.

Anchoring the data to a starting year has the effect of combing one's unruly hair. Mathematically, they are just shifting the lines so that they start at the same location, without altering the curvature. Of course, this is double-edged: the re-centering means the left-blue / right-red interpretation is co-opted.

On the Times chart, they used a different coping strategy. Each version of their charts has a filter: they highlight the set of lines to demonstrate different vignettes: the swing states moved slightly to the right, the Republican states marched right, and the Democratic states also moved right. Without these filters, the readers would be winking at the Times's bad-hair day.


Another decision worth noting: the direction of time. The Post's choice of top to bottom seems more natural to me than the Times's reverse order but I am guessing some of you may have different inclinations.

Finally, what about the thickness of the lines? The Post encoded population (voter) size while the Times used electoral votes. This decision is partly driven by the choice of state versus county level data.

One can consider electoral votes as a kind of log transformation. The effect of electorizing the popular vote is to pull the extreme values to the center. This significantly simplifies the designer's life. To wit, in the Post chart (shown nbelow), they have to apply a filter to highlight key counties, and you notice that those lines are so thick that all the other countries become barely visible.




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