By: Joe Strupp
Online campaign maps have become a regular staple of many newspapers’ political coverage. But the Christian Science Monitor has taken a different approach with its new “Patchwork Nation” project, which eschews the usual polling data, election results and “red-blue” state descriptions.
Instead, the online feature divides the entire nation up by counties, offering descriptions of each as a “community” based on income, economy, population, race, religion and some past voting trends. The site then monitors which counties the top three candidates are visiting and offers data on which kinds of communities they are targeting.
Oh, and all of the data is available free for any news outlet to use, courtesy of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which stipulated it must be shared as part of the $250,000 grant used to fund the effort.
“It shows that ultimately we will be able to watch the way different communities will respond to different issues,” said Dante Chinni, a former Project for Excellence in Journalism staffer who is running the Web map. “We will be able to see how the candidates change their message depending on where they are going and it is a way to track what is happening with each voter group.”
The map can be found at:
The map identifies each U.S. county as one of 11 “communities,” labeled as “boom towns,” “campus and careers,” “emptying nests,” “evangelical epicenters,” “immigration nation,” “industrial metropolis,” “military bastions,” “minority central,” “monied ‘burbs,” “service worker centers,” and “tractor country.”
A database then tells which of the counties Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and John McCain have visited during any span of time dating back to Feb. 1, 2008.
“We hope, particularly in the general campaign, that we will be able to see the type of voters they are targeting,” Chinni said. “See the way McCain is talking in Philadelphia and Detroit, and on a statewide or local level.”
For instances, a check of travel during the past week, March 21-28, shows Clinton visited four Pennsylvania counties, three North Carolina counties and Washington, D.C. Three of the counties were deemed, “tractor country,” three were “service worker centers” and two were “industrial metropolis.”
Obama, on the other hand, spent nearly all of his time in Oregon, visiting five counties there, with just one stop in North Carolina. Obama’s visits included two “campus and career” counties, along with two “evangelical epicenters” and two “tractor country” locations.
Just that sample alone shows the different types of voters those candidates are targeting.
Chinni said the approach offers a more specific look at candidate strategies beyond the state-by-state polling and past result tracking. “All red and blue tells you is what voters do in the voting booth,” Chinni added. “But why a voter in Ohio voted for McCain and why a voter in Texas voted for McCain is often different. We hope to show the why.”
Making the data available to news outlets can give journalists around the country a chance to expand their local coverage, Chinni said. “You can take it and apply it to your state, your metro area and even your county,” he said. “We hope this lets journalists in general use this data and lets the citizens on the street know more about it, too.”
Much of the data is being provided by James Gimpel, a University of Maryland professor and editor of American Politics Research. “The whole idea is that people vote on a variety of considerations,” he said. “You can’t simply study votes and assume they are the same.”
Chinni is also recruiting bloggers to provide updates from each of the 11 different “community” types, hoping to get at least two from each.
Chinni pointed out that most campaigns are organized to target voters on a much more specific geographic level than some may realize. “Journalists joke about how candidates are packaged now as products, but it is true,” he said. “Campaign managers are figuring out how to sell their product to different types of voters. We hope to lift the veil a little bit on it.”