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I’m obsessed with The West Wing’s truly wild Electoral College maps

A Democrat winning South Carolina? A Republican winning Vermont? C’mon!

The cast of the The West Wing.
The pioneers of a bold new Electoral College map.
NBC/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

True fans of Aaron Sorkin’s center-left fantasia The West Wing (a show that has plenty of flaws but that also makes for magnificent comfort food sometimes) know that the series takes place in an alternate timeline where America has presidential elections in the years when our reality has midterm elections and vice versa. For instance, Democratic President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was voted into office in 1998 and then again in 2002, and the series concludes with the election of Democrat Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits) to the presidency in 2006.

Some West Wing fans have speculated (mostly in, like, online forums and comment sections) that the reason for this is that in the world of the show, Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974 triggered a special presidential election that year (instead of leading to Gerald Ford ascending to the presidency, as happened in our reality). But the fact remains: The West Wing’s reality is not our own.

Perhaps that explains the show’s truly out-there Electoral College maps.

We see two presidential elections during the series’ run — Bartlet’s reelection in 2002 and Santos’s election in 2006 — and the electoral maps it cooks up for them are, well, they’re weird.

Here’s the one for the 2002 reelection of President Bartlet, courtesy of the West Wing fan wiki:

The West Wing’s 2002 electoral college map
How did Bartlet win the Dakotas??

Now, in the 2002 election of the West Wing universe, President Bartlet won with an 11-point edge in the popular vote, which translated to 419 out of 538 electoral votes, with the other 119 taken by his Republican challenger Robert Ritchie. (Ritchie, alas, never realized he was running against the protagonist of a TV show, which would have been helpful information for his campaign to have.) I don’t really know why Bartlet would be that popular but for the fact of Sorkin stacking the deck in his favor, but let’s go with it.

At first blush, the map above is pretty darn odd. Bartlet wins a bunch of traditional Democratic strongholds on the West Coast and in the Northeast. But he also wins the Dakotas and Nebraska? And every swing state except notoriously swingy Florida (which the show said Bartlet won in 1998)? And the strip of states that borders the Mississippi River, from Minnesota down to Louisiana? Yeah, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton won that Mississippi River strip in 1992 and 1996, but he was from Arkansas. Bartlet (from New Hampshire) boasts no such geographical advantage.

Once you understand that Bartlet won the popular vote by 11 points, however, all sorts of goofy things become plausible. When a presidential candidate wins by a double-digit margin in the popular vote, states you wouldn’t expect them to win flip to that candidate’s column (though double-digit popular vote winners also typically sweep all the swing states, so Florida still doesn’t make sense). In our world, for instance, Clinton won reelection in 1996 with an 8.5 percent edge in the popular vote, and he won a number of states people might not have predicted him to win, including Arizona, which had been a Republican stronghold to that point (and which flipped back to George W. Bush in 2000).

Regardless: I don’t know that I would predict the Dakotas and Nebraska to fall into the blue-state column, even in a Democratic-friendly year, but maybe Bartlet had an amazing agricultural policy I’m forgetting about.

Anyway, the even more bizarre West Wing electoral map is the one from the show’s version of 2006:

The West Wing’s 2006 electoral college map
What is happening here?

The obviously wild thing here is Democratic Santos winning Texas and Republican Arnold Vinick winning California, but Santos is from Texas and Vinick is from California, and the “home state effect” apparently remains potent in the West Wing universe. (It isn’t really as potent in our universe — Al Gore lost Tennessee in 2000, and Donald Trump didn’t take New York in 2016.)

But even if you account for the series attempting to reverse-engineer an impossibly close election — Vinick wins the popular vote 50.1 percent to 49.9 percent while Santos wins 272 electoral votes to Vinick’s 266 — one that eventually results in both parties deciding to work together for the good of the country (because we’re all Americans!), this map is really strange.

It shows Vinick winning both Ohio and Florida, the two most crucial swing states of the 21st century, then losing South Carolina, when North Carolina is the much swingier state. Conversely, Santos wins South Carolina (somehow) but loses Vermont? There is no way a Democratic candidate loses Vermont to someone running to his right. Similarly, Arizona was still a Republican stronghold in our universe in 2006; I suppose you could argue that Santos, the first major Latino candidate for the presidency, created high turnout among Latino Americans across the Southwest (though somehow not in California). But still!

Anyway, if Donald Trump wins Vermont and Joe Biden wins South Carolina in 2020, I will retract this post with a full apology to the staff of The West Wing. Until then, I continue to believe these electoral maps are a mess, concocted not to reflect reality but, rather, to create drama and high stakes on a TV show. The gall.