America the Purple

Looking at the electoral college map, it’s easy to imagine that the U.S. is a sharply divided country. The northeastern and western coastal states are all blue, while a broad band across the country is mostly red. But that’s an artifact of our winner-take-all electoral system, which paints small electoral differences in broad primary colors.


Consider Florida, where neither party won an outright majority and where the difference between red and blue was about half a percentage point. States where the margin was larger still generally had both red and blue counties. Princeton professor Robert Vanderbei’s map of the presidential vote, which colors individual counties along a spectrum from red to blue according to the percentage of votes for each party, shows pockets that are very red or very blue. But most of country is fairly mixed, with Democrats and Republicans living together side by side. The truth is that America is largely a purple country.

In fact, while Obama won more than 50% of the votes that were actually cast, neither party won an outright majority of the voting-eligible population. As Andrew Gelman points out, just 30% of the total electorate voted for Obama. Another roughly 30% voted for Romney. The other 40% of the eligible voters simply didn’t vote. More people didn’t vote, in other words, than voted for either of main candidates. Some eligible voters—a disproportionate number of whom were minorities—faced obstacles to voting. Others may have calculated that their vote wouldn’t make a difference in their state. But it’s probably safe to say that as a group this non-voting 40% didn’t have strong enough feelings about the race to get to the polls.

In general, our electoral college system has the effect of exaggerating the differences between us. As Nate Silver says, right now it probably works to the advantage of Democrats. Democrats may have won the presidency and added seats in both the House and the Senate, making this a decisive victory by contemporary standards. Long-term demographic trends—the electorate is becoming more urban, less evangelical, and less white—may also favor Democrats. But Republicans still managed to win a majority of seats in the House. With a strong candidate or another recession they could easily win back the presidency. As John Sides says, this was not a fundamental electoral realignment. The shift in the electorate between George W. Bush and Barack Obama was just a shift of a few points.

We are not really such a divided country. We are, by most standards, a moderate, politically centrist country. But we are also—as we have been throughout our history—a changing country. Republicans lost this election because it is hard to unseat a sitting president while the economy is improving. But they also lost because they were reluctant to accept or acknowledge the changing concerns of voters in the middle of the electorate. And if the Republican Party doesn’t adapt its platform on issues like immigration, reproductive rights, and marriage equality they are likely to lose again four years from now.

Electoral map image courtesy of Robert J. Vanderbei under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Beyond Meat announces plan to sell ‘ground beef’ in stores. Shares skyrocket.

Beyond Beef sizzles and marbleizes just like real beef, Beyond Meat says.

Culture & Religion
  • Shares of Beyond Meat opened at around $200 on Tuesday morning, falling to nearly $170 by the afternoon.
  • Wall Street analysts remain wary of the stock, which has been on a massive hot streak since its IPO in May.
  • Beyond Meat faces competition from Impossible Foods and, as of this week, Tyson.
Keep reading Show less

Thumbs up? Map shows Europe’s hitchhiking landscape

Average waiting time for hitchhikers in Ireland: Less than 30 minutes. In southern Spain: More than 90 minutes.

Image: Abel Suyok
Strange Maps
  • A popular means of transportation from the 1920s to the 1980s, hitchhiking has since fallen in disrepute.
  • However, as this map shows, thumbing a ride still occupies a thriving niche – if at great geographic variance.
  • In some countries and areas, you'll be off the street in no time. In other places, it's much harder to thumb your way from A to B.
Keep reading Show less

Can you guess which state has the most psychopaths?

A recent study used data from the Big Five personality to estimate psychopathy prevalence in the 48 contiguous states and Washington, D.C.

Surprising Science
  • The study estimated psychopathy prevalence by looking at the prevalence of certain traits in the Big Five model of personality.
  • The District of Columbia had the highest prevalence of psychopathy, compared to other areas.
  • The authors cautioned that their measurements were indirect, and that psychopathy in general is difficult to define precisely.
Keep reading Show less