Seeking a Better Way to Cover the Elections


Here are last night’s Democratic results as displayed on many websites. The strangeness of this format is how deceptive it is to organize results by state rather than by what counts in primaries, which is delegates.

There are a few winner-take-all primary states, but not many. Yet the press reports and displays results as if we were in the general election, where all but a few states have a winner-take-all system (the electoral college).

There are many ways this display format can fool people. For example if you flipped Sanders and Clinton’s numbers in Illinois and Missouri last night, many people would see the result as much closer (He won 2 she won 3), but it would be virtually irrelevant — a delegate or two would have moved in a night when hundreds were rewarded.

Likewise, organizing results by state (and adding those check marks state by state) implies something else that is not true, namely that margins don’t matter. In the general election they do not, but in the primary the fact that Clinton won Florida by over 30 points is meaningful and not the same as if she had won it by 3 points. Unlike in the general, a win by a huge margin in one state can cancel out the effect of a narrow loss in a bigger state.

So here’s a challenge for graph makers, political junkies and Tufte devotees: What would be a better way to display primary results such that people understood better what was happening in the election?

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is a professor of psychiatry at Stanford University. He served as a senior policy advisor at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2009 to 2010.