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What The Nation’s First Electoral Map Reveals About Today’s Partisan Divide

The first map of how the U.S. voted came out in 1880. More than a century later, the country is as divided as it was then. But it doesn't have to be that way.

In the wake of the government shutdown and debt crisis, it seems that Congress can’t sink to worse lows of partisanship.

In light of today’s struggles, it’s instructive to look at the nation’s first electoral map of the 1880 election—the last time the country was as divided as it is today. The map came to the Internet’s attention via historian Susan Schulten, who dug up the remarkable document from deep within the pages of the landmark 1883 Statistical Atlas of the United States, a tome of "dazzling" cartographic and graphical innovation unlike much else seen at the time.

"That era was basically the last time the parties were as strong as they are now," says Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver and colleague of Schulten's. "We’re not talking about slavery or the aftermath of the Civil War," he says, but "we are talking about fundamental ideological differences about what this country stands for."

This was the era when a "solid South" emerged, although back then the parties were flipped, and white Southerners flocked to the then more conservative Democratic Party (in red on the map). The 1880 election, between Republican James Garfield and Democrat former Civil War general Winfield Scott Hancock, was remarkably close—with Garfield eking out the popular vote by the smallest of margins (48.3% vs. 48.2%). The biggest issue of the day was a debate over the tariff, which Republicans backed. More importantly, the election was viewed as a referendum on the painful process of Reconstruction.

Schulten points out why the map is remarkable. Not only did it break down results by county, which would have been cumbersome data to collect at the time, but it also shaded each county by the margin of victory—a mapping technique that imparted extra information and had not been used before. It helps us understand where the "swing" states of the Gilded Age were (Pennsylvania, Virginia), and assists observers in understanding why eastern Tennessee went "blue" (this region was loyal to the Union in the Civil War).

Masket believes the detailed county-by-county breakdown map emerged at this time because of the shift in campaigning styles that heralded today’s era of personality-driven, narrowly focused politics, a la Tea Party darling Ted Cruz. Before that period, parties used to campaign on behalf of candidates, he says, but only in this time did it become acceptable for candidates themselves to aggressively barnstorm on their own behalf. The map, he says, would have been a big help for a candidate who needed to plot his own course. These days, sophisticated political campaigns have maps that go literally block-by-block.

The 2012 election mapped by county, for contrast.

Of course, today, Republicans own much of the south and Democrats, the north. This gradual realignment of the South over many decades has finished its due course, and is largely what’s responsible for today’s deep divides, as can be seen in the last 2012 election returns. The demographic shifts in much of the country, with the emergence of Latinos as a powerful voting block as well as the increasing growth of cities, could shift this dynamic. Let’s hope it pushes us towards a more sane political era once again.