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multi-colored graph and maps showing presidential election results by political party

Primary Sources and Political Parties: Ten Ideas for Teaching with Graphs and Maps

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This post is part of a series that looks at sources and strategies for teaching about political parties. 

In building the political parties primary source set, a favorite find of mine was a set of maps and associated graphs. One of them, “Election Results,” offers many ways for students to examine historical data, identify trends or patterns, and develop their own questions about the evolving nature of political parties in the United States.

Provides a collection of maps documenting how people in the United States voted in elections.
The national atlas of the United States of America, Election Results, Copy 1

Below are ten teaching ideas to get you started, using various component parts of the featured pages (bar chart, circle graphs, and maps). Some activities are brief—you might use one to launch a unit or begin a lesson. Other ideas will take students more time and possibly inspire additional research.

  • Students can examine the bar graphs for an at-a-glance look at how parties have performed in presidential elections over time. Students might look for trends or patterns. As an extension, invite students to reflect on the strengths and weaknesses of bar graphs as a tool for conveying information.
  • After students look at the bar graphs, assign them to continue the graph into the present day. Students will need to use outside resources that provide results for presidential elections after 1968. What trends do they notice about how different political parties fared?
A bar graph that shows what political party won each presidential election, spanning from 1796 to 1968.
Bar Graph, Presidential Elections and Political Parties
  • Direct students to the circle graphs to examine a particular election year more closely. Encourage students to consider the role of third or minor parties.
  • Use the circle graphs to compare election results by popular vote vs. electoral college vote. Are there years where there is a significant difference or gap between the two? What conditions might have led to the gap? Students could do additional research about election results by party after 1968, with attention to the popular and electoral college vote.
  • Invite students to consider the relationship between two types of graphs: bar and circle. What are the strengths and weaknesses of each type for understanding party performance in presidential elections? How do the two types work together to convey information?
Two circle graphs, one showing the popular vote results by political party and one showing the electoral college vote results. To the left of the circle graphs is a map of the United States in 1824, that shows election results by state.
Circle Graphs, 1824 Presidential Election Results


  • Focusing on the maps, students could trace how a single state, or a geographical region of the United States, has changed over time in terms of its party preference. Students might look for notable periods of change or stability, and how the state or region compares to other areas of the United States. As an extension, students could consider issues or challenges that are unique to a region or state and how that could influence political party affiliation.
A set of maps of the United States that shows the results of presidential elections by political party
Maps, Election Results by Political Party
  • Students can use the maps to determine notable election years. In what years were there landslide victories by one party? What election years saw a power swap between parties? This activity could begin an inquiry into critical issues or events at the time of different presidential elections and how parties responded to those issues.
  • Use the maps to help students consider how third or minor parties have fared over time. Ask students to think about the impact third parties have had on the outcome of elections.
  • Students can use the maps to think about the United States as an evolving political landscape. As territories came into the union of the United States, what political party was dominant in that state? Are there trends? Outliers?
  • Use the map to think about how turning points or significant events in history can also affect political parties. Examples could include: the Civil War, World War II, or the Civil Rights Movement. What changes on the map do students notice before, during, and after a milestone event?

These suggestions may inspire additional ideas for teaching with maps and graphs. These teacher guides may be helpful for bringing your ideas to students!

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