Mapping the America That Candidates Care About

Wide swaths of the country will never see a presidential candidate make a speech. Does that matter?

Nancy Wiechec / Reuters

Whoof—it’s over. When D.C.’s polls closed on Tuesday night, it marked the end of 2016’s long presidential nightmare primary. Every state got its turn, even belated California, whose primary is usually a 780-mile victory lap for the presumptive nominees. It has been a great lesson plan for civics teachers. For the last five months, Americans focused their attention on a different state every few weeks, which is sort of cute—the real-life equivalent of that annoying Fifty Nifty United States song.


While I’m loath to bust that image of national unity, it should be noted that some states were not loved as much as others. Though the candidates probably spent enough time in Iowa and New Hampshire to qualify for tax benefits, other regions had to make do with a quick grip-and-grin at the local airport. The paths Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, & Co. cut across the country look quite a bit different from the state map hanging on the classroom wall.

Thanks to National Journal’s candidate travel tracker, which chronicled campaign stops, these patterns can actually be charted. Here’s a quick map of every city visited by a presidential candidate since 2015:

Yeesh—who dumped a bowl of Dippin’ Dots on Iowa? Of course, no surprise there, really: As the first state to vote, Iowa attracts a crawling bee swarm of presidential candidates, who covet the Hawkeye State for its mystical momentum-granting abilities. And given that the preferred strategy for low-polling also-rans is to pull a “full Grassley” and visit all 99 of the state’s counties, Iowa’s visited-city count is even higher than it would be normally, inflating the number of dots.

While this map is nice, I prefer something different: a Voronoi diagram, which outlines the areas of influence surrounding a given set of points. In this case, the diagram plops a set of boundaries around each campaign stop; everyone who lives inside that boundary is closer to that stop than any other stop on the map. If they were in the mood to hear a candidate speak, that would be the closest place to go.

Now the inequities of campaign geography become a bit clearer. A resident living in Montana or North Dakota would have had to travel as far as 300 miles to see a presidential contender, nearly the length of the state. Yes, they live in a sparsely populated state. But it’s the same story in Arizona and Washington, where, outside of few core cities, average engaged citizens had quite a car ride ahead of them if they wanted to, well, engage.

Compare that with New Hampshire, where most folks had to travel no more than six miles:

This could soon change. Reeling from Trump’s victory, the Republican National Committee will consider rejiggering the order of primaries in 2020. One idea with potential that they’re floating is to pair traditional early voting states, like Iowa and New Hampshire, with other states that will vote on the same day, diluting the early states’ importance and encouraging candidates to campaign elsewhere. While that falls short of beheading the Hawkeye State’s position as first primary in the nation, it would be a very close haircut.

But for now, this is how a presidential campaign views America: a series of city-states, each with a sphere of influence, some larger than others. You can only hit so many in six months (or even less time, if you’re not one of the lucky few candidates to make it past Super Tuesday). And politicians clearly prioritize the regions that will give them an early advantage. CNN’s broadcasts make the whole of America look busy and bustling with Election Day bunting. But in most parts of the country, the party is very far away.