Biden’s Biggest Pyramids

Yesterday we looked at an article from the Inquirer about the 2020 election and how Biden won because of increased margins in the suburbs. Specifically we looked at an interactive scatter plot.

Today I want to talk a bit about another interactive graphic from the same article. This one is a map, but instead of the usual choropleth—a form the article uses in a few other graphics—here we’re looking at three-dimensional pyramids.

All the pyramids, built by aliens?

Yesterday we talked about the explorative vs. narrative concept. Here we can see something a bit more narrative in the annotations included in the graphic. These, however, are only a partial win, though. They call out the greatest shifts, which are indeed mentioned in the text. But then in another paragraph the author writes about Bensalem and its rightward swing. But there’s no callout of Bensalem on the map.

But the biggest things here, pun intended, are those pyramids. Unlike the choropleth maps used elsewhere in the article, the first thing this map fails to communicate is scale. We know the colour means a county’s net shift was either Democratic or Republican. But what about the magnitude? A big pyramid likely means a big shift, but is that big shift hundreds of votes? Thousands of votes? How many thousands? There’s no way to tell.

Secondly, when we are looking at rural parts of Bucks, Chester, and Montgomery Counties, the pyramids are fine. They remain small and contained within their municipality boundaries. Intuitively this makes sense. Broadly speaking, population decreases the further you move from the urban core. (Unless there’s a secondary city, e.g. Minneapolis has St. Paul.) But nearer the city, we have more population, and we have geographically smaller municipalities. Compare Colwyn, Delaware County to Springfield, Bucks County. Tiny vs. huge.

In choropleth maps we face this problem all the time. Look at a classic election map at the county level from 2016.

Wayb ack when…

You can see that there is a lot more red on that map. But Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by more then 3,000,000 votes. (No, I won’t rehash the Electoral College here and now.) More people are crowded into smaller counties than there are in those big, expansive red counties with far, far fewer people.

And that pattern holds true in the Philadelphia region. But instead of using the colour fill of an area as above, this map from the Inquirer uses pyramids. But we face the same problem, we see lots of pyramids in a small space. And the problem with the pyramids is that they overlap each other.

At a glance, you cannot see one pyramid beind another. At least in the choropleth, we see a tiny field of colour, but that colour is not hidden behind another.

Additionally, the way this is constructed, what happens if in a municipality there was a small net shift? The pyramid’s height will be minimal. But to determine the direction of the shift we need to see the colour, and if the area under the line creating the pyramid is small, we may be unable to see the colour. Again, compare that to a choropleth where there would at least be a difference between, say, a light blue and light red. (Though you could also bin the small differences into a single neutral bin collecting all small shifts be them one way or the other.)

I really think that a more straight forward choropleth would more clearly show the net shifts here. And even then, we would still need a legend.

The article overall, though, is quite strong and a great read on the electoral dynamics of the Philadelphia region a month ago.

Credit for the piece goes to John Duchneskie.

Biden Won the Burbs

The thing with election results is that we don’t have the final numbers for a little while after Election Day. And that’s normal.

There are a few things I want to look at in the coming weeks and months once my schedule eases up a bit. But for now, we can use this nice piece from the Philadelphia Inquirer to look at a story close to home: the vote in the Philadelphia suburbs.

It’s all happening in the yellow.

I’ve already looked at some analysis like this for Wisconsin and I shared it on my social. But there I looked at the easy, county-level results. What the Inquirer did above is break down the Pennsylvania collar counties of Philadelphia, i.e. the suburbs, into municipality level results. It then plotted them 2020 vs. 2016 and the results were—as you can guess since we know the result—Biden beat Trump.

What this chart does well is colours the municipalities that Biden flipped yellow. It’s a great choice from a colour standpoint. As the third of the primaries, with both blue and red well represented, it easily contrasts with the Biden- and Trump-won towns and cities of the region. The colour is a bit “darker” than a full-on, bright yellow, but that’s because the designers recognised it needs to stand out on a white field.

Let’s face it, yellow is a great colour to use, but it’s difficult because it’s so light and sometimes difficult to see. Add just the faintest bit of black to your mix, especially if you’re using paints, and voila, it works pretty well. So here the designer did a great job recognising that issue with using yellow. Though you can still see the challenge, because even though it is a bit darker, look at how easy it is to read the text in the blue and the red. Now compare that to the yellow. So if you’re going to use yellow, you want to be careful how and when you do.

The other design decision here comes down to what I call the explorative vs. the narrative. Now, I don’t think explorative is a word—and the red squiggle agrees—but it pairs nicely with narrative. And I’ve been talking about this a lot in my field the last several works, especially offline. (In the non-blog sense, because obviously all my work is done online these days. Oh, how I miss my old office.)

Explorative works present the user with a data set and then allow them to, in this case, mouse over or tap on dots and reveal additional layers of information, i.e. names and specific percentages. The idea is not to tell a specific story, but show an overall pattern. And if the piece is interactive, as this is, potentially allow the user to drill down and tease out their own stories.

Compare that to the narrative, my Wisconsin piece I referenced above is more in this category. Here the work takes you through a guided tour of the data. It labels specific data points, be them on trend or outliers and is sometimes more explicit in its analysis. These can also be interactive—though my static image is not—and allow users to drill down, and critically away, from the story to see dots of interest, for example.

This piece is more explorative. The scatter plot naturally divides the municipalities into those that voted for Biden, Trump, and then more or less than they voted for Trump in 2016. The labels here are actually redundant, but certainly helpful. I used the same approach in my Wisconsin graphic.

But in my Wisconsin graphic, I labelled specific counties of interest. If I had written an accompanying article, they would have been cited in the textual analysis so that the graphic and text complemented each other. But here in the Inquirer, it’s a bit of a missed opportunity in a sense.

The author mentions places like Upper Darby and Lower Merion and how they performed in 2020 vis-a-vis 2016. But it’s incumbent on the user to find those individual municipalities on the scatter plot. What if the designer had created a version where the towns of interest were labelled from the start? The narrative would have been buttressed by great visualisations that explicitly made the same point the author wrote about in the text. And that is a highly effective form of communication when you’re not just telling, but also showing your story or argument.

Overall it’s a great article with a lot to talk about. Because, spoiler, I’m going to be talking about it again tomorrow.

Credit for the piece goes to Jonathan Lai.

You Have Mail

Who remembers when AOL used to announce that to you? Old millennials, am I right?

Anyway, your humble author is using up some more holiday time the next several days and will be on holiday for Thanksgiving. Not that I will be travelling anywhere to see anybody. And for my American audience, you really shouldn’t be travelling either.

But that’s for a Covid-19 post. This is about e-mail. Because even though today is a Wednesday, it’s more like a Friday. So thanks to xkcd we have this post on how everything eventually becomes like e-mail.

Subj: RE:RE:RE:RE:Did you get that memo I sent you?

For the record, I’m at 999+ on my personal account and at 1200+ at work. So yeah, one of these days maybe I’ll clean it out.

And if you have a thought about this, just send me an e-mail. I’ll read it eventually.

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

How Would the Covid-19 Vaccines Work

Over the last week or so, we have been receiving some encouraging news from the makers of three viable Covid-19 vaccines: Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. All three have reported their vaccines as at least 90% effective. This doesn’t mean the relevant regulatory agencies have verified that data, but it’s better than injecting ourselves with bleach.

Keep this in mind, though, a full vaccination roll out will take months. Having 20–40 million doses is great, but the population of the United States is 330 million. The expectation is a return to normalcy will not really begin until the end of Q3 or beginning of Q4 2021.

This article from the Washington Post does a good job of explaining some of the next steps—and some of the significant logistical hurdles. They illustrate part of the process of shipping the Pfizer vaccine, which needs to remain cooled -70ºC. That’s -94ºF. A wee bit colder than most normal freezers operate.

The Post article also illustrates how the Pfizer/Moderna type of vaccine works—the Pfizer and Moderna tackle it one way whilst AstraZeneca tackles it via a second method.

The first steps in the process.

There’s a lot going on here, but I like the simplified approach the designers took. This whole situation is complicated, but here we see the process distilled to its most essential elements. And the restrained use of colour helps tremendously.

The vial and then needle are filled red, and that red colour carries through into the messenger RNA (mRNA) that is absorbed by the cells and ultimately creates the spike proteins used by the virus (not the virus itself).

Credit for the piece goes to Carolyn Y. Johnson and Aaron Steckelberg.

Covid-19 Update: 22 November

I have been taking and have yet to take a lot of holiday time this year. So apologies for the sporadic posting. But we’re working this week, because travelling to see family this year is a bad idea.

So the last Covid-19 update I posted was about a month ago. A lot has happened in the last month, like an entire election. But you really should go back a month and look at the charts for the five states I cover. At the time I said things were

Bad and getting worse.

I added that

while we are seeing dramatic rises in new cases, we are not yet seeing the rises in deaths that accompanied similar rises in March and April

And so let’s take a look at where we are now. First with cases.

New case curves for PA, NJ, DE, VA, & IL.

And now with those deaths.

Death curves for PA, NJ, DE, VA, & IL.

I mean…

This has all been so obvious for so long. And yet, I had to run two errands yesterday—timed so that I’d be running them whilst most of Philadelphia watched their football team and they must have played poorly from all the people yelling “c’mon” out their windows—and whilst the streets were fairly empty, about half of the people I passed either had their masks down, were doing that idiotic cover-the-mouth-but-not-the-nose thing, or—and this is the kicker—flat out had no mask on at all.

I’ll repeat what I said a month ago, things are bad and getting worse. But, maybe unlike a month ago, people will start taking this seriously. Because a month ago I wrote about how new deaths were not yet at the levels of the spring.

Well take a look at Illinois. They got there in just four weeks.

Pennsylvania? Halfway there.

New Jersey? Starting to rise a little bit faster now.

Virginia? Well Virginia has one of the odder death patterns I’ve seen—partly by their repeated cycling through backlogged data—but it’s clearly on the upswing now.

Delaware? It’s hard to see because the numbers are so small, but it’s also on the rise.

So please, just wear a bloody mask.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Can Texas Go Blue on Tuesday?

One story I’m following on Tuesday night is Texas. The state’s early voting—still with Monday to go—has surpassed the state’s total 2016 vote. Polling suggests that early votes lean Biden due to President Trump’s insistence that his supporters vote in person on Election Day as he lies about the integrity of early and mail-in voting.

The Texas Tribune looked at what we know about that turnout and what it may portend for Tuesday’s results. And, to be honest, we don’t—and won’t—really know until the votes are counted. They put together a great piece that divided Texas counties into four groups (their terminology): big blue cities, fast-changing counties, solidly red territory, and border counties. They then looked at the growth in registered voters in those counties from 2016, and looked at how they voted in the 2016 presidential election (Hillary Clinton vs. Donald Trump) and the 2018 US Senate election (Beto O’Rourke vs. Ted Cruz).

The piece uses the above stacked bar chart to show that Texas’ 1.8 million new registered voters’ largest share belongs to the big blue cities. The second largest group is the competitive suburbs in the fast-changing counties. The third largest, though quite close to second, was the solidly red territory. The border counties, still important for the margins, ranks a distant fourth.

I’m not normally a fan of stacked bar charts, because they do not allow for great comparisons of the constituent elements. For example, try comparing any of of those solidly red territory counties to one another. But here, the value is more in the stacked set as a group rather than the decomposition of the set, because you can see how the big blue cities have, as a group, a greater number of those 1.8 million new voters.

Those fast-changing counties include a lot of the suburbs for Texas’ largest cities. And those are areas where, across the country, Republicans are losing voters by the tens of thousands to the Democrats. As battlegrounds, these presented a challenge, because as swing counties, they split their votes between Clinton and Cruz and Trump and Beto. And so the designers chose purple to represent them in the stacked design. I think it’s a solid choice and works really well here.

But in terms of the story, I’ll add that in 2016, Trump won Texas by 807,000 votes. Texas added 1,800,000 new voters since then. And turnout before Election Day is already greater than it was in 2016.

It’s still a state likely to go for Trump on Tuesday. But, if Biden has a good night, it’s not inconceivable that Texas flips. FiveThirtyEight’s polling average has Trump with only a 1.2 point lead.

Credit for the piece goes to Mandi Cai, Darla Cameron and Anna Novak.

Red Shift, Blue Shift

Last night I published a graphic on Instagram that I think people may find helpful if they try to follow Election Day results on Tuesday. I wanted to explain the concept of a red shift or blue shift. (I’ve also seen it described as states having a red mirage or a blue mirage.)

For my non-American readers, it’s important to understand that while this is a national election, the United States’ federal system means that each state runs its own election with its own rules and they can vary some state to state. For example, early or mail-in voting can vary significantly from state to state with some states allowing it only in emergencies (and some of those this cycle will not allow people to cite COVID-19 as an emergency).

Another factor for everyone to consider is that polling indicates President Trump’s fraudulent messaging about, well, voting fraud has shifted a normally split use of early/mail-in voting to a Democratic advantage. In other words, Democrats are far more likely to vote early, either in person or by post. Republicans are far more likely to vote on Election Day.

Combine those two factors and we get Red Shift vs. Blue Shift.

Some states allow election officials to begin counting their early votes prior to Election Day. Other states forbid counting until Election Day morning, or in some cases until after the polls close.

In states where early votes can be counted—the swing states Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina are among this group—it is possible that when the polls close, or shortly thereafter, we will see an instant and enormous lead for Joe Biden. But, as the states begin to count in-person day-of votes, which again favour Republicans, Trump may begin to eat into those margins. The question will be, can Trump’s numbers eat in so much that when the final counts are complete, he can overtake those Biden numbers? This is the Red Shift.

Conversely we have the Blue Shift. In these states—swing states like Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin are in this group—election officials cannot begin to count early votes either until the morning or when the polls close. In these states we may see the in-person day-of votes, largely expected to be for Republicans, run up to high totals fairly quickly. At that time, Trump may have a significant lead. Then when officials pivot to counting the early votes, Biden will begin to eat into those margins. And again, the question will be, can Biden eat into those margins sufficiently to shift the outcome after all the votes are counted?

Be prepared to hear about these scenarios Tuesday night.

Credit for the piece is mine.

Choose Your Own FiveThirtyEight Adventure

In case you weren’t aware, the US election is in less than a week, five days. I had written a long list of issues on the ballot, but it kept getting longer and longer so I cut it. Suffice it to say, Americans are voting on a lot of issues this year. But a US presidential election is not like many other countries’ elections in that we use the Electoral College.

For my non-American readers, the Electoral College, very briefly, was created by the country’s founding fathers (Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, et al.) to do two things. One, restrict selection of the American president to a class of individuals who theoretically had a broader/deeper understanding of the issues—but who also had vested interests in the outcome. The founders did not intend for the American people to elect the president. The second feature of the Electoral College was to prevent the largest states from dominating smaller states in elections. Why else would Delaware and Rhode Island surrender their sovereignty to join the new United States if Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York make all the decisions? (The founders went a step further and added the infamous 3/5 clause, but that’s another post.)

So Americans don’t elect the president directly and larger states like California, New York, and Texas, have slightly less impact than smaller states like Wyoming, Vermont, and Delaware. Each state is allotted a number of Electoral College votes and the key is to reach 270. (Maybe another time I’ll get into the details of what happens in a 269–269 tie.) Many Americans are probably familiar with sites like 270 To Win, where you can determine the outcome of the election by saying who won each state. But, even though the US election is really 50 different state elections, common threads and themes run through all those states and if one candidate or another wins one state, it makes winning or losing other states more or less likely. FiveThirtyEight released a piece that attempts to link those probabilities and help reveal how decisions voters in one state make may reflect on how other voters decide.

The interface is fairly straightforward—I’m looking at this on a desktop, though it does work on mobile—with a bunch of choices at the top and a choropleth map below. There we have a continually divergent gradient, meaning the states aren’t grouped into like bins but we have incredibly subtle differences between similar states. (I should also point out that Maine and Nebraska are the two exceptions to my above description of the Electoral College. They divide their votes by congressional district, whoever wins the district gets that Electoral College vote and then the state overall winner receives the remaining two votes.)

Below that we have a bar chart, showing each state, its more/less likely winner state and the 270 threshold. Below that, we have what I’ve read/heard described as a ball plot. It represents runs of the simulation. As of Thursday morning, the current FiveThirtyEight model says Trump has an 11 in 100 chance of winning, Biden, conversely, an 89-in-100 chance.

But what happens when we start determining the winners of states?

Well, for my non-American readers, this election will feature a large number of voters casting their ballots early. (I voted early by mail, and dropped my ballot off at the county election office.) That’s not normal. And I cannot emphasise this next point enough. We may not know who wins the election Tuesday night or by the time Americans wake up on Wednesday. (Assuming they’re not like me and up until Alaska and Hawaii close their polls. Pro-tip, there’s a potentially competitive Senate race in Alaska, though it’s definitely leaning Republican.)

But, some states vote early and/or by mail every year and have built the infrastructure to count those votes, or the vast majority of them, on or even before Election Day. Three battleground states are in that group: Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina. We could well know the result in those states by midnight on Election Day—though Florida is probably going to Florida.

So what happens with this FiveThirtyEight model if we determine the winners of those three states? All three voted for Trump in 2016, so let’s say he wins them again next week.

We see that the states we’ve decided are now outlined in black. The remainder of the states have seen their colours change as their odds reflect the set electoral choice of our three states. We also now have a rest button that appears only once we’ve modified the map. I’m also thinking that I like FiveyFox, the site’s new mascot? He provides a succinct, plain language summary of what the user is looking at. At the bottom we see what the model projects if Arizona, Florida, and North Caroline vote for Trump. And in that scenario, Trump wins in 58 out of 100 elections, Biden in only 41. Still, it’s a fairly competitive election.

So what happens if by midnight we have results from those three states that Biden has managed to flip them? And as of Thursday morning, he’s leading very narrowly in the opinion polls.

Well, the interface hasn’t really changed. Though I should add below this screenshot there is a button to copy the link to this outcome to your clipboard if, like me, you want to share it with the world or my readers.

As to the results, if Biden wins those three states, Trump has less than a 1-in-100 chance of winning and Biden a greater than 99-in-100.

This is a really strong piece from FiveThirtyEight and it does a great job to show how states are subtly linked in terms of their likelihood to vote one way or the other.

Credit for the piece goes to Ryan Best, Jay Boice, Aaron Bycoffe and Nate Silver.

Where Are the Votes?

I’m not working for a good chunk of the next few days. But, I did want to share with my readers an analysis of Pennsylvania’s missing votes. Broadly, Trump needs to win the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania next week—yes, the US election is now one week away. Though, Pennsylvania allows mail-in ballots postmarked on Election Day to arrive within a few days and still be counted. So we may not have final tallies for the state until the weekend or Monday after Election Day.

Pennsylvania, of course, narrowly voted for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016 with 44,000+ votes making the difference. In 2020, polling has consistently placed Joe Biden above Donald Trump by 5+ points. But, can Trump again pull off an upset victory?

I argue that yes, he can. And fairly easily too. (If you want to see why I think Pennsylvania is really Trumpsylvania, I recommend checking out my longer, more in-depth analysis.) So where would the votes come from? I mapped the 2016 difference between votes cast and registered voters, i.e. people who could have voted, but did not for whatever reason. I then coloured the map by the county’s winner in 2016. Red counties voted for Trump by more than 10 points and blue for Clinton by more than 10 points. The purple counties are those that were competitive, plus or minus 10 points for either candidate.

In the purple counties, both candidates will want to drive out as many voters as possible. But in the blue counties, Biden has reliably Democratic votes and in red Trump has reliably Republican votes. So why on Monday did Trump visit Allentown, Lititz, and Martinsburg? Because that’s where those votes are.

Allentown, in Lehigh County, is competitive. In fact, neighbouring Northampton Co. will be a key swing county next week and one I will be following closely as the returns come in. But Lititz, Lancaster Co., and Martinsburg, Blair Co., are in reliably red counties. (Though in my Trumpsylvania piece I argue Lancaster Co. is undergoing a transition to a competitive, albeit lean Republican county.)

In Lancaster Co., which went to Trump by nearly 20 percentage points in 2016, there were still just short of 100,000 voters who didn’t vote in 2016. Not all of those voters would have voted for Trump, but for sake of argument, just say 50% would have. That makes just short of 50,000 potential Trump votes—more than Trump’s entire state margin.

Blair Co. is in the Pennsyltucky region of the state, relatively rural, but in Blair’s case, its county seat Altoona is the state’s 10th largest city. While the total number of votes—and the total number of non-voting voters—are smaller than in Lancaster Co., add up all the available votes and it’s a large number.

If you add up all those red counties’ missing votes, you get a total of just shy of 840,000 missing votes. Far more than enough to drastically swing the Commonwealth to Trump in 2020.

Of course, Biden’s counting on driving out turnout in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh and their suburbs, along with other cities in the state, like Allentown, Scranton, Harrisburg, and Erie. In those blue counties, there were 927,000 missing votes, so the potential for a Biden win is also there.

But, if Democratic voters don’t vote again in 2016, Trump has plenty of potential votes to pick up across the state.

Credit for the piece is mine.