A Tale of Three Maps: How Obama Won States While Losing Counties


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The state election results map shows a divided country. Map courtesy of Mark Newman.

With the presidential election a week behind us, poll watchers have been busy slicing and dicing voter information and election results.

Of particular interest to many is an analysis that shows although President Barack Obama won key states and the electoral college vote, the majority of the nation’s counties were in favor of Republican challenger Mitt Romney.

State and County Election Maps Tell Different Stories

At the center of some controversy are maps showing county by county voting patterns.

While the final state election map shows Obama carrying more than half the states, a county by county analysis shows most of the nation voted ‘red’ for Romney.

County election results map show most counties voted for Romney. Map courtesy of Mark Newman.

The county by county maps can appear startling at first glance, but county results can be deceiving. While more counties may have voted for Romney, the overall vote in a particular state could still be in favor of Obama. This is particularly true in states which are largely rural with the majority of their population centered in just a few counties.

For example, the county by county map of Michigan shows the vast majority of the state voted for Romney. However, Michigan’s population is concentrated in the greater metro Detroit area where voters are overwhelmingly Democratic. Voters in densely populated Wayne County and the surrounding counties offset Romney supporters from rural counties and helped Obama win 54 percent of Michigan’s popular vote.

Blended Map of Election Shows More Complete Picture

A flaw of many county-by-county maps is their tendency to designate counties as red or blue only. However, it is rare that counties vote entirely for one candidate. Instead, most counties have split votes.

This blended county map uses purples to show how many counties split their votes between Obama and Romney. Map courtesy of Mark Newman.

For a more accurate 2012 election results map, Mark Newman from the Department of Physics and Center for the Study of Complex Systems at the University of Michigan suggests a blended map, which makes use of reds, blues and purples.

This map takes into consideration that many counties, even those that went for Romney, had a substantial number of Obama voters.

The blended map still shows pockets of staunch Romney support in the center of the country as well as overwhelmingly ‘blue’ counties along the coasts.

However, much of the country is colored shades of purple which more accurately represents the split nature of the 2012 presidential election vote.

2012 Election Results

Pundits and political watchdogs may continue to dissect the details of the 2012 presidential election in the months to come.

In the end, one truth may remain constant throughout the inevitable debate and controversies: the country is deeply divided over its choice of president. Obama may have won the electoral college vote decisively, but his critics are not likely to let him forget he only garnered 50.6 percent of the popular vote.


Newman, Mark. Election Maps. (2012). University of Michigan. Accessed November 14, 2012.

Google Politics. Election Results. (2012). Accessed November 14, 2012.

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