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Why you shouldn’t measure Bernie Sanders's success by how many counties he won

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

When you look at a map of New York's election results, it looks like Bernie Sanders absolutely dominated. And so of course that's getting attention on social media:

The Hill even wrote an article that's been shared more than 10,000 times on Facebook with the headline "Sanders wins majority of NY counties despite Clinton victory."

This is a silly way to look at election results. Winning a lot of land mass doesn't make you president of anything, which is why the county-level electoral maps for President Obama's victory in 2008, for example, is bright Republican red:

County map Mark Newman

When you skew the counties to show their relative population, as Mark Newman, a professor of physics at the University of Michigan, did, there's a lot more blue than red:

Cartogram showing relative populations Mark Newman

The US consists of a lot of counties with very few people and a few counties that are very densely populated. There are more than 3,000 counties in the US. Half of the nation's population lives in 146 of them.

But the maps Robin tweeted show something more interesting, too: They show how Clinton has flipped the map in some ways from the last time she ran. Of the 19 states she has won so far, more than half of them were states she lost in 2008. That's partly just because her campaign is winning more this time around. But it's also because she's relying on some of the voters who were stalwarts for Obama.

As Vox's Jeff Stein reported in February:

"The irony of this Democratic primary so far is that Hillary Clinton's path to victory involves winning the voters she lost in 2008. And Bernie Sanders's path to victory depends on winning the voters Hillary Clinton won in 2008," says Dave Wasserman, a political analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. "That's a remarkable turn of events in just eight years."

Of course, it's delegates, not states or votes or counties, that really count. And although Clinton might have lost the majority of counties, she won the state by nearly 300,000 votes.

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