The List

How Ancient Plankton Elected Obama

And other crazy tales from the world's electoral maps.

Despite all the polls and punditry, only a few things can be predicted with absolute certainty about today's election, including that they will (eventually, perhaps) produce a winner, a loser, and a slew of electoral cartography for CNN's John King to play around with on a touch screen.

On election night, experts -- whether or not of the armchair variety -- will be poring over map after map of the states as they fall in the two main candidates' columns, and comment on patterns reversed or confirmed.

The political class's obsession with maps is a fleeting one, limited to the pre- and post-game analysis of elections. In the United States, the geographic battle lines are well known. The main questions: Will the 2012 results deepen the dichotomy between "red states" -- a contiguous bloc of Republican-voting states that covers most of the country -- and "blue states," a disparate collection of pro-Democrat enclaves bordering the Great Lakes and both coasts? Or will either color make inroads into the other side's territory? Maybe an unexpected new configuration of red and blue will emerge, perhaps resembling older geographic voting patterns?

Interpreting such voting patterns is the main business of political geography, a discipline that studies the strange marriage of geographical accident to the (relative) predictability of political preference.

Frank Jacobs

The Beast of the East

The mascot of this particular discipline itself is a hybrid of politics and geography: the gerrymander, a species of monster first spotted in Massachusetts in 1812. In January of that year, Republican governor Elbridge Gerry authorized an electoral redistricting which would favor his party's candidates over those of the Federalist Party in upcoming elections for State Senate.

The public outcry over the governor's decision fastened unto a particularly contorted new district in Essex County, dubbed a Gerry-mander, a portmanteau of salamander and the name of the embattled governor (who, despite his efforts, would not win re-election). Pro-Federalist newspapers like The Boston Gazette and The Repertory & General Advertiser circulated a cartoon of the district, ornamented with fearsome claws, demonic wings, and a dragon-like head. The term has been in constant use ever since: See, for example, Illinois' 4th Congressional District, a.k.a. "The Earmuffs," designed to contain two Hispanic-majority areas in Chicago.

Gerrymandering is not limited to the United States, however; any democracy plagued by the practice of changing electoral borders to create advantages (and disadvantages) at the ballot box practices it. The Germans call it Wahlkreisschiebung (fiddling the constituency), in France it's known as charcutage électoral (electoral mangling), while the Icelanders prefer the euphemistic kjördæmahagræðing (constituency optimizing).

The redrawing of electoral borders is but one reason to be mindful of the geographic angle in elections. A map of the results can illuminate much more than the overall percentages gained by the candidates. Sometimes, that map is a palimpsest, unwittingly revealing ancient fault lines beneath the surface of what seems a mere political contest. Presidential elections, with their polarizing one-on-one tendency, are best suited for this kind of cartographic archeology.

Public Domain

A Tale of Two Ukraines

Few elections were as polarized as Ukraine's 2004 presidential poll. Pitting two Viktors against each other -- the pro-western Yushchenko and the pro-Russian Yanukovich -- the result of the first run-off, showing a win for Yanukovich, produced a wave of protest. Dubbed the Orange Revolution, the protests forced a replay of the run-off, this time won by Yushchenko.

But rather than place Ukraine safely in the western camp, Yushchenko's slight victory (52 percent) ultimately proved reversible; Ukraine's current president is the other Viktor. The electoral map shows how the tug of war between east and west plays out within Ukraine's own borders: Yanukovich's support is based in the industrial east and south, home to most of the country's Russian minority. Yushchenko only won districts in Ukraine's north and west, the traditional heartland of Ukrainian nationalism. The electoral divide has the country oscillating between westernizing and easternizing tendencies, perhaps only to be resolved when the country finds a way to harmonize both -- or when the perceived border between east and west shifts its course once more.


Old Habits Die Hard

Explanations are harder to find for one of Poland's more persistent political fault lines. The results of the 2007 legislative elections, pitting the (pro-free market) PO party [in orange] against the (more populist) PiS party [in blue] produces a close fit with the old border between the German Empire and the Russian Empire. Both borders disappeared decades ago, and World War II and its aftermath have radically changed the ethnic composition of the region, with Germans pushed out and Poles moving west.

And yet there it is: The current map of Poland acts as a palimpsest, showing an older layer when held up against the light of an electoral result. Could it be that the Poles in the orange region, who settled there more recently, chased from their own homes further east, are less rooted in tradition, and hence vote for more progressive parties? Could it be that the largely urban infrastructure they inherited infers other social and electoral patterns than the largely rural environment in Poland's blue bits?

Strange Maps

Revenge of the Huguenots

For France, the case is clearer. This map shows the results of the first round of France's presidential elections of 2007, pitting the right-wing candidate Nicolas Sarkozy against socialist figurehead Ségolène Royal, with François Bayrou representing the squeezed center. While Bayrou only managed to win in his home département of Pyrennées-Atlantiques, Royal won 25 and Sarkozy 74 out of a total of 100 départements (9 overseas, and 91 in "metropolitan," or continental France).

Sarkozy subsequently went on to handily win the second round, but even in a three-horse race, this electoral map of France shows a remarkable dichotomy: Sarkozy won in the north, east, and south-east, but the clear winner in Brittany and the southwest was Royal. Again, this is an old and oft-repeated voting pattern: the east and north vote conservative, while the southwest, the west, and parts of Paris vote socialist. Here, as in the case of Ukraine, geography seems to reflect the two opposing ends of the political spectrum.

Explanations for this split reach back to the southwest's long tradition of radical socialism, a tradition rooted not just in the convulsions of the French Revolution, but all the way back to 1685 and the repeal of the Act of Toleration. This led to the obliteration of the Huguenot heartlands in the southwest, which may have instilled strong anti-clerical, anti-monarchist tendencies that are still determining electoral outcomes today.


King Cotton

But geography's effect on elections extends back even further into the past. In 2008, Obama lost a swathe of southern states to Republican contender John McCain, but if you drill down to county level, a remarkable blue streak cuts through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia. This pattern makes no apparent sense, unless you link it to an agricultural map from the 1860s -- showing where cotton was king. Those areas are still heavily populated by the descendants of the slaves once forced to work the cotton fields; the African-American voting bloc behind Obama that helped him win 2008 -- if not in the aforementioned southern states. The reason cotton grew best where it did goes back about 100 million years to the Cretaceous Era. Back then, the cotton belt was a coastal area, and the graveyard of untold billions of single-celled creatures called plankton. Their dead bodies would become the chalk deposits upon which cotton would thrive.

If electoral cartography can explain how to link dead plankton to votes for Obama in 2008, what will the new maps that will pop up after tonight's election say?  

Paul Downey, Allen Gathman

The List

Going Out Gracelessly

The six worst concessions in recent political history.

Later tonight -- or, if worst comes to worst, in the next few days -- either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama will be forced to take the stage and deliver a speech conceding the election to his rival. It's a painful task: After more than a year of making the case that he spoke for the people, one candidate must humbly admit that the people have spoken -- and chose the other guy. Here are six examples of candidates who utterly failed to step gracefully away from the limelight.

Richard Nixon, 1962

It's hard to imagine how Richard Nixon returned to political prominence from the nadir of what he wrongly declared his "last press conference," after losing the 1962 California governor's race. Nixon's remarks, a bravura display of self-pity, have widely been derided as the worst concession speech in U.S. history: "I leave you gentlemen now and you will write it," he told the assembled reporters. "Just think how much you're going to be missing. You won't have Nixon to kick around any more." 

It wasn't the first time Nixon's distaste for concession speeches left a sour taste in supporters' and opponents' mouths alike. He refused to deliver his own concession speech after losing the 1960 presidential election, instead sending out a staff member to read a short statement. The election's victor, John F. Kennedy, privately eviscerated Nixon as he watched from Hyannis Port: "He went out the way he came in -- no class."

Jacques Parizeau, 1995

In the mid-1990s, it seemed as if the French-speaking residents of Quebec might finally muster enough votes to secede from Canada and establish an independent state. Quebec's newly elected premier, Jacques Parizeau, was a staunch supporter of independence and called a referendum to turn the idea into a reality.

The referendum was narrowly defeated, with 49.4 percent of Québécois voting in favor of secession and 50.6 percent voting against. But it was Parizeau's disastrous speech to his supporters following the defeat that hardened many citizens' feelings against secession. His address was a hard-edged appeal for ethnic solidarity directed to French-Canadians, referring to the group as "us" -- presumably to the exclusion of the rest of his fellow countrymen. "It's true we were beaten, yes, but by what?" he asked. "By money and ethnic votes, essentially."


Andrés Manuel López Obrador, 2006 and 2012

The leftist politician nicknamed El Peje -- after a "tenacious river fish" -- is the perpetual also-ran in Mexican politics. Obrador lost the 2006 presidential election by a razor-thin margin, and then went on to be defeated convincingly in the 2012 presidential election. In neither case, however, did he present himself a gracious loser in defeat.

In the 2006 campaign, Obrador declared himself the winner on election night and -- disobeying the election commission's request -- went on to call himself "president of Mexico" as the votes were tallied in the days ahead. Even after Felipe Calderón was declared the winner by 0.58 percent of the votes, the closest in Mexico's history, Obrador approved a ceremony where his supporters declared him the country's "legitimate president."

The 2012 presidential election was no nail-biter -- Obrador lost to Enrique Peña Nieto by roughly 3.5 million votes -- but El Peje's reaction was all too familiar. He once again refused to concede, petitioning the electoral commission to invalidate the election on the grounds of fraud. If the results were allowed to stand, he warned, "a gang of criminals" would be placed in power.


Ahmed Shafiq, 2012

Egypt's 2012 presidential election wasn't just the country's first since longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak was forced to step down -- it was also the first time in history that its citizens got to choose their leader in a free and fair ballot.

The choice in the June runoff election couldn't have been starker: Voters went to the polls to cast their ballots for either long-time Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohammed Morsy or longtime Mubarak ally and former prime minister Ahmed Shafiq. Morsy was declared the winner on June 24, capturing 52 percent of the vote to Shafiq's 48 percent.

The election's aftermath would have been the perfect opportunity for Shafiq to concede gracefully, signaling to his supporters that the popular will and democratic norms must be respected. Instead, when Shafiq supporters looked around for their standard-bearer in the days following the campaign, he was nowhere to be found. Not only did he not deliver a concession speech, he fled to the Persian Gulf less than 48 hours after the results were announced.

The real reaction to Shafiq's defeat was delivered by his campaign staff in Cairo, who murmured darkly about a conspiracy to steal the election and attacked the newly elected president. "I will no longer be proud to be Egyptian under a country led by the Muslim Brotherhood's Morsy," said one disgruntled advisor. "I want to leave Egypt as soon as possible."


Slobodan Milosevic, 2000

Slobodan Milosevic committed much larger offenses than election fraud -- genocide and crimes against humanity top the list -- but that didn't stop the longtime Serbian strongman from trying to skew the polls when they weren't going his way.

On Sept. 24, 2000, voters in Yugoslavia went to the ballot box to elect their next president -- the first time they had done so -- in a move widely seen as an attempt by Milosevic to secure his hold on power. But something unexpected happened: The famously fractious Serbian opposition united behind one candidate, the constitutional lawyer Vojislav Kostunica, and drubbed Milosevic at the ballot box. While the opposition claimed to have won 55 percent of the vote, the government-controlled election commission asserted that Kostunica had failed to win a majority -- thus requiring a second round.

The ruling sparked fury on the streets of Belgrade, and hundreds of thousands of Serbians took to the streets to demand Milosevic's immediate resignation. When it became clear that the army would not keep him in power, Milosevic conceded to the popular will.

"I would also like to thank those who did not vote for me because they took a huge weight off my chest, the burden of responsibility which I have carried for a full 10 years," he said in his vainglorious resignation speech. "I personally intend to rest a bit and spend some more time with my family."

That last hope, however, was not to be. Less than a year later, Milosevic was imprisoned and transferred to the custody of the United Nations, where he stood trial for crimes committed during the Kosovo War. He would die of a heart attack in his prison cell six years later.


Laurent Gbagbo, 2010

Laurent Gbagbo's mistake was holding elections in the first place. The Ivory Coast president was still in power in 2010, even though his mandate had expired in 2005. But while he postponed the vote numerous times, international pressure finally forced his hand -- Gbagbo was known to complain that he was "obliged to carry out the [French] Revolution of 1789 under the scrutiny of Amnesty International."

The election went ahead in November 2010, setting the stage for a showdown between Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara. Like strongmen everywhere, Gbagbo seemed shocked to find his people's undying loyalty in doubt: When the election commission declared Ouattara the winner with 54.1 percent of the vote, he simply refused to relinquish power. Many observers suspected nothing less from a candidate who used the campaign slogan: "We win or we win."  

Both Gbagbo and Ouattara took the oath of office, leading to escalating violence between the two candidates' supporters that eventually devolved into civil war. "We are not going to give up," Gbagbo said, painting a portrait of an international conspiracy to oust him from power. "Our greatest duty to our country is to defend it from foreign attack."

U.N. and French forces eventually did help oust Gbagbo from power, ending the four-month civil war and eventually resulting in his extradition to the International Criminal Court. The former president, however, never abandoned his attempts to play on his people's fears of colonialism: As he put it, "I find it absolutely incredible that the life of a country is played out, in a game of poker, in foreign capitals."