Online Activism: A Quantitative Window into Politics in California

The lead up to elections is always an exciting time at Change.org. As an open platform, we see petitions about social issues on both sides of the aisle, creating both a social issue set and a dataset that is particularly balanced and representative of a community’s social pulse.

And for the San Francisco-based Data Science team, nothing could be more relevant than the 2016 US elections. With the California primary next week, we set out to make observations about the relationship between social activism and political affiliation – just in time for voting season.

So we took a look at both Conservative and Progressive petitions in California, then charted the locations of their signatures to produce our own “political affinity” map of the state:

Political Affinity Map

Political Affinity Map

All politics is local

The California political affinity map, above, was produced by determining the number of signatures in each zip code of a representative set of Conservative and Progressive petitions.

On the Conservative side, that included petitions such as:

On the Progressive side, that included petitions like:

We then coded those political positions, respectively, in Red and in Blue.

The colored pixels are sparse where California’s population density is low, and extremely dense in the hubs where the majority of the state’s 39 million people reside. National petitions with a strong political slant get support in local areas where that political leaning is popular. (In contrast, a petition about a local issue may get substantial support from an area regardless of the petition’s political affinity.)

Our resident Computational Linguist, John Rehling, makes sense of the map as follows:

  • In California, we see two expansive Blue (Progressive) areas in the state’s most populous regions: Greater Los Angeles and the San Francisco Bay Area. The Bay Area is highly Progressive, with almost no Red areas to be seen, whereas the Los Angeles area is somewhat divided – extremely Blue in central L.A. and its western suburbs, but mixed Red and Blue to the east and south, towards Orange County.
  • We see that San Diego and Sacramento have a more mixed ideological bent: San Diego is relatively Progressive, but not so much as San Francisco and Los Angeles. Meanwhile, Sacramento is still more Conservative. Both San Diego and Sacramento are alike in having a Blue center with more Red in the suburbs.

  • In rural California, Red predominates, though not universally. A ride down the Central Valley on Interstate 5 will go through many mixed areas, with generally more Red than Blue.

  • Many of California’s minor metropolitan areas also have a significant ideological divide. A few smaller locales are strongly Red; this includes Redding in the far north and Temecula and Indio in the south. Meanwhile, smaller Blue areas can be seen around Eureka, Mendocino, Palm Springs, and Truckee, north of Lake Tahoe.

Petition signatures an indicator for elections?

Overall, the divides seen in our map match the results seen in recent elections.

The map below shows the results of the 2012 presidential election broken down by county. It is very similar to our political affinity map, but coarser.

2012 presidential election broken down by county and our political affinity map

2012 presidential election broken down by county and our political affinity map

The areas that voted for Barack Obama also tilted towards more Progressive petitions, whereas areas that voted for Mitt Romney also show more support for Conservative petitions.

This relationship between social activism and political affinity is readily apparent. While we can’t predict the outcome of a party primary with this data, it may indicate how the state will go during the general election.

We’ll continue to update this map, so stay tuned as we approach November.