This project explains how a post-Tea Party, post-Obama America is composed of different economic and demographic realities in predominantly Republican and Democrat areas, most prominently exemplified by the fact that despite geographic losses, Democrat-represented congressional districts have come to make up an ever-growing share of the U.S. economy.
The project reinvigorated a discussion about economic and identity politics, with both the New York Times and Washington Post running news and editorial pieces based on the same data from The Brookings Institution in the wake of our publication.
In The Wall Street Journal’s newsroom, it has led to a series of articles that examine other aspects of how “Red America” and “Blue America” contrast with each other, both by reporters who worked on this project and others who were inspired by it.
In the longer term, the Journal team hopes that these trends mark the beginning of a data-focused way of examining political polarization and teasing out how partisans come to view America through two very different lenses.
Having data to work with hinged on being able to map Census county-level data to Congressional district boundaries. To do so, the Journal team worked with Brookings to join the county-based data to Congressional districts via scripts and good old-fashioned Excel.
To begin outlining this visual story, the Journal team had to understand the basic shifts in the various statistics (i.e. income, employment, etc.) between Democratic and Republican districts, so reporters looked at the different ways to distill the summary points. Because mean-based averages were susceptible to outliers – frequently swing districts, undercutting the core party angle — the Journal whittled its options down to median and mode-based analysis. Although the modal approach was considered, using median values gave the team a more authentic “typical” district and allowed it to show how that typical district shifted over a decade and won out.
When the team approached the stage of storyboarding the story and conceptualizing visualizations, it primarily used Illustrator. With the visualizations, reporters wanted to emphasize the divergence over the years between Democratic and Republican congressional districts, so they started with exploring visualizations for the summary figures.
However, to add depth to the story, the team decided to look at what chart the congressional-level district data could reveal, so it dove back into the scripts and Excel to see if there were finer points to explain with the district-level data. When it was confirmed that there was, reporters ideated on ways to chart all the congressional districts.
Once the design for the charts was determined, it was a mix between using D3 to chart the visualizations, and refining the storyboard in illustrator until we were able to focus solely on the web build.
What was the hardest part of this project?
Distilling what the statistics show and presenting them in an accessible way were a big challenge. The initial version of the project was significantly more expansive because the divide in economies can be attributed to so many facets, and because reporters had a deep set of data.
However, to keep a concise and engaging story, the team had to carefully consider what points were most essential to the narrative, how the information was structured and designed, and how the text was worded.
To that end, the reporters cut. And cut. The team built on a template that gave readers a single panel at a time to streamline every point. The Journal structured the data and words to create an exploratory interaction, so that readers are guided through content that could easily be riddled with jargon and get too far into the weeds.
What can others learn from this project?
“Democrats and Republicans Aren’t Just Divided” is a powerful testament to the importance of developing sources and working with them. The Journal team worked hard to join, clean and present the data, but a standing relationship with Brookings (and a library of other good data presentations) meant they trusted us with swaths of data.
This wasn’t just key for building an exclusive project, but also for affording the reporters the time for the back-and-forth with Brookings to develop the story and sharpen the narrative.