Book Review: The Routledge Historical Atlas Of Presidential Elections

The Routledge Historical Atlas Of Presidential Elections, by Yanket Mieczkowski

If Routledge decides to edit and update this collection, which covers through the 2000 election, there are some errata that need to be fixed. Given the importance of data visualizations to the point that the author is seeking to make about the progress of the American political system, it is important to get the facts right. On at least a few serious occasions, this book does not. Three flaws in terms of factual data, aside from the larger philosophical diffiuclties which will be discussed shortly, stand out. For one, on page 14, the legend for the bar graph showing the presidential electors for the 1792 election shows John Adams as a Democratic Republican when he was a Federalist. On page 18, the same graph for the 1796 election switches the information for Adams and Jefferson, making it appear erroneously that Jefferson had a slight win that year. Towards the end of the book, on page 139, the author notes that 1988 was the first time that Republicans had lost New York and won the election since 1948 (Dewey wins?). Errors like this give the book a poor mandate to discuss America’s political history fairly, especially when combined with a tendency to mock Florida for backwards ballots [1].

In terms of its contents, the book combines a narrative approach that is witty, and which tends to focus on the long-term ramifications of electoral shifts as well as emphasizing the fact that American political campaigning for president is more or less a continuous process. The author notes, apparently without realizing how startling it is, that Henry Clay resigned from the Senate in 1842 so that he could more effectively win the Whig nomination two years later, not that it did him any good. The author is also rather harsh on candidates who are unable to connect with the American public because of a lack of charisma while also harsh on those who have charisma but lack gravitas. It is as if the author wants to have his cake and eat it too, seeking substantive policy recommendations from people who are also simultaneously able to charm others well. The author buttresses his narrative with maps and charts, which do a lot of the heavy lifting, and although he cites some cross-tabs in terms of which groups within states went for the winner and loser(s), he does not go into them with any kind of detail. Then again, at just over 150 pages, there is not any space for any great detailed political analysis to be found here.

Although this book is often considered a reference material, it lacks the accuracy to to be a very good one. It is a superficial and mildly enjoyable read, with graphics that are glossy but also not entirely accurate, that presents a somewhat biased perspective of politics, painting Democrats as the majority party throughout American history even when they keep losing elections, including during the time of Grant and Reagan. Apparently when Democrats suppress the black vote in the late 19th century South they are the majority party even when losing most presidential elections, as is the case when they are continuing to lose elections after 1952. The author even has nice things to say about Al Smith and the apparently emergent Democratic New Deal majority he was building in 1928, even though he has little good to say about people like Bob Dole, who the author inexplicably considers deeply conservative. This book is a good reason why left-leaning and inaccurate atlases should be left as entertainment and not considered to be good sources of actual fact.

[1] See, for example:

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