Nate, Daniel, and I have an op-ed in the Times today, about senators’ positions and state-level opinion on health care. We write:
Lawmakers’ support for or opposition to reform generally has less to do with the views of their constituents and more to do with the issue of presidential popularity. . . .
For instance, Senator Blanche Lincoln, a Democrat who has been a less-than-strong supporter of the present health care bill, recently told The Times, “I am responsible to the people of Arkansas, and that is where I will take my direction.” But where does she look for her cue? Hers is a poor state whose voters support health care subsidies six percentage points more than the national average. On the other hand, Mr. Obama got just 40 percent of the vote there.
Likewise, in Louisiana, where the Annenberg surveys showed health care reform to be popular but where Mr. Obama is not, the Democrats are not assured of Mary Landrieu’s vote. . . .
Here’s our graph that makes this point:
In putting together the op-ed, the art dept at the Times made some changes (with our guidance and approval). Here’s what they made:
Much nicer than our original, I have to say!
We also look at public opinion within states:
Using a statistical method called multilevel regression and post-stratification, we also mapped opinion on health care, breaking down voters by age, family income and state. We’re used to thinking about red states and blue states, but the geographic variation is dwarfed by the demographic patterns: younger, lower-income Americans strongly support increased government spending on health care, while elderly and well-off Americans are much less supportive of the idea.
And here are the maps that tell the story:
Again, the Times improved it (saving space slightly by combining the two highest income categories):
The Times version is not just more attractive; it’s also easier to read, I think, in the sense of being more self-contained. (I still prefer our color scheme, though.)
Summary on the politics
Swing senators’ positions on health care are often presented in terms of worries about voter attitudes in the senators’ home states. Overall I don’t think this fits the data. Attitudes on health care vary more consistently by age and income than by state (compare to our graphs of ideology and partisanship), and constituents’ views on health care are not a strong predictor of senators’ stances.
Public opinion is certainly relevant to the health care debate, but not in the direct senator-follows-the-state way that it is sometimes imagined.
Summary on the graphics
I liked our graphs, but the Times versions are better. Our graphs took months of effort, but the Times versions were not immediate either. We had to go back and forth several times to get the clarity we all wanted. I’d like to think, though, that our effort was not wasted: by being able to make a bunch of graphs that were informative for us, we were able to home in on the story. At that point, the graphics professionals helped us to do better.
It’s tougher to make graphs for a newspaper than for a book, scholarly journal, or even a blog, I think. Even beyond the different audiences, a newspaper graph really has to be self-contained. In a book or article I can accompany the graph with a caption, and I make full use of captions to make each graph reasonably self-contained (to the benefit of people such as myself who jump from graph to graph when reading), and in a blog I can put whatever I want right below the graph. But in the newspaper, the graph really has to stand alone and with minimal captioning.