Historian Susan Schulten found this map of the 1880 election while leafing through the 1883 Statistical Atlas of the United States:
“That era was basically the last time the parties were as strong as they are now,” says Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver and colleague of Schulten’s. “We’re not talking about slavery or the aftermath of the Civil War,” he says, but “we are talking about fundamental ideological differences about what this country stands for.”
This was the era when a “solid South” emerged, although back then the parties were flipped, and white Southerners flocked to the then more conservative Democratic Party (in red on the map). The 1880 election, between Republican James Garfield and Democrat former Civil War general Winfield Scott Hancock, was remarkably close–with Garfield eking out the popular vote by the smallest of margins (48.3% vs. 48.2%). The biggest issue of the day was a debate over the tariff, which Republicans backed. More importantly, the election was viewed as a referendum on the painful process of Reconstruction.
Schulten points out why the map is remarkable. Not only did it break down results by county, which would have been cumbersome data to collect at the time, but it also shaded each county by the margin of victory–a mapping technique that imparted extra information and had not been used before. It helps us understand where the “swing” states of the Gilded Age were (Pennsylvania, Virginia), and assists observers in understanding why eastern Tennessee went “blue” (this region was loyal to the Union in the Civil War).