A picture is worth a thousand words.
A detailed, data-driven map depicting Wisconsinites’ voting impulses is worth many thousand more – even a few Sunday-newspapers-worth of eye-opening, front-page political news and analysis.
UW Oshkosh Political Science Professor James Simmons and Geography and Urban Planning Professor Kazimierz Zaniewski teamed up with the Oshkosh Northwestern newspaper over the last several months to examine the political winds in the crucial swing area that is northeastern Wisconsin. The Nov. 4 gubernatorial and midterm Congressional elections loom.
Their collaborative, data-based study and analysis of 26 years of Wisconsin election results and voting data, and the resultant digital, interactive maps they produced, are the cornerstone of Gannett Wisconsin Media’s multi-Sunday series “Divided Wisconsin.”
The series, as The Northwestern reports, offers “stories that explore the polarization of the electorate” in Wisconsin, specifically examining “The state’s changing voter demographics and how it is eroding the middle ground; Why northeastern Wisconsin plays a crucial deciding role in statewide elections; How turnout explains the state’s sometimes wild swings between Democrats and Republicans; How and why voting patterns have changed on the local level; and The efforts to stem the tide of toxic politics.”
Leveraging expertise, knowledge
For Simmons and Zaniewski, it was an opportunity to share expertise they have each developed over the last few decades.
Simmons has been collecting and studying voter trends in the region since the 1970s. Over the last 15 or so years, he has been zooming in on the changing and sometimes undecided tendencies and preferences of Fox Valley voters in close-call presidential, gubernatorial and, in some instances, Congressional elections.
“We showed that Wisconsin is a bellwether,” Simmons said. “… There are only a handful of states that are competitive. All the money in a presidential year is going to be spent there. Plus, some of Wisconsin’s officials on the political side are national figures… And in other ways we simply reflect the polarization. The parties have shifted apart.”
Simmons and Zaniewski collaborated to produce and present a couple of research papers examining the state’s political polarization over the last several years. That segued into some conversations with Oshkosh Northwestern City Editor Karl Ebert, who, along with the newspaper’s other editors and reporters, knew readers deserved some explanation for the reasons political ad blitzes so intensely focusing money and message on their TVs and mailboxes.
The reporting project also dovetailed with a June Pew Research Center study of political polarization in America. Wisconsin, as Simmons’ data and Zaniewski’s maps showed, was indeed a poster child for widening national rifts.
“If I put up the numbers, people’s eyes would glaze over,” Simmons said. “People can relate to this. You look at the state. You see the patterns. It’s pretty apparent from the spatial analysis what’s happening.”
For Zaniewski, the project capitalized on his passion for maps. He helped The Northwestern generate data-based illustrations vividly showing the shifting political poles in the Badger State dating back to presidential elections since the late1980s.
The colorful, straightforward, front-page visualizations factor detailed voting data and complex political and voting behaviors since the 1988 presidential race. They tell the story on a county-by-county and even township-by-township level.
“You may be familiar with the term ‘infographics.’ It’s the hot word,” Zaniewski said, adding that maps and graphics are becoming increasingly effective teaching tools for a more visual audience, too. “Everybody’s going to that… The emphasis is showing things graphically.”
Educating, empowering citizens
At www.thenorthwestern.com, interactive versions of the Divided Wisconsin project maps generated by Zaniewski invite readers to zoom-in on and drill-down to town and municipal-level voting trends and tendencies.
“What was exciting was that we could have a long-term collaborative project with the University and, hopefully, we can do more things along these lines,” said Ebert, an award-winning reporter and UW Oshkosh student who has been honing his knowledge of data and mapping in a geographic information systems (GIS) certificate course.
“It’s more than picking up the phone and tapping someone’s expertise,” he said. “… Simmons and I had several long conversations about (the project) before the thing even got off the ground. We started talking about it early summer and decided the right timing was to peg it to the election. And I think that was a really good call. The things you’re seeing in the gubernatorial race are things we can shed light on.”
The Divided Wisconsin reporting series began earlier in October. In upcoming Sunday editions of The Northwestern, reports based on Simmons’ data and Zaniewski’s maps explore why turnout matters in elections on regional and national levels.
“It goes back to the idea that northeastern Wisconsin has enough persuadable voters” to swing elections in certain cases, Ebert said.
“We’re going to look specifically at Winnebago County, and then we’ll wrap it up with a story on what people can do to overcome this polarization,” he said, noting the very real, and sometimes raw, divides political opinions can split open, even between friends and families.
“But we’ll also offer some ways out of the polarization,” Ebert said.
Simmons said the project has been rewarding in how political science and geography at UW Oshkosh is being applied to help explain the campaign currents Oshkosh, Fox Valley, New North and Wisconsin voters are being swept up into.
“What I like about this is I’ve always thought there ought to be an even closer link between the University and the community,” he said.