Two years ago, I wrote an article about how Electoral Maps on TV Shows Make No Sense. VEEP featured a map with Democrat Selina Meyer winning Florida but losing Delaware. The West Wing, meanwhile, had Democrat Jed Bartlet winning the Dakotas and Indiana while Democrat Matt Santos is winning South Carolina but losing Florida. I called out for a political show that would produce an electoral map that made some degree of sense. Two years later, I finally got one from House of Cards.
2016’s Election in House of Cards
The 2016 Presidential Election in House of Cards takes place in seasons 3, 4, and concludes in 5. Democrat Frank Underwood was the Democratic nominee while William Conway was the GOP nominee. Between 2012 and 2016, Underwood was the Congressman from South Carolina’s 5th district, then Vice-President, then President. Underwood manipulated all the events to get him to this point. He secured the Vice-Presidency by getting the sitting VP to run for, and win, the Pennsylvanian Gubernatorial Special Election in 2013; allowing Underwood to be appointed VP. He then assumed the Presidency by implicating Incumbent President Garret Walker in a campaign finance scandal that Walker was innocent of. Underwood was President by 2014, but his party fared poorly in the midterms and it was presumed he would never win the Presidency in 2016.
Underwood managed to secure the primary after sabotaging his opponents and picked his wife, Clair Underwood, as his running mate. Republican Will Conway, the Governor of New York, was seen as a clear favorite throughout the campaign, with mention of Conway being up 10% mentioned in Season 4. After Frank and Clair’s charm offensive did not gain enough ground, the Underwoods opted to use terror and fear. In the House of Cards universe, ICO (not ISIS) is the foreign threat. Radicalization of two local white teenagers (who decapitate a man on US soil) are used by the White House to drum up fear. Underwood’s “only I can protect you” play is familiar to folks in the political business. However, Underwood’s tactics go far beyond what anyone has done before to secure a win. Listing every illegal and unethical tactic would take too long. The key tactics of Season 5 are stationing of troops in key swing states as well as consolidating polling sites in GOP-friendly areas to suppress anti-Underwood voters. All of this is done in the name of security, using fake threats to justify the actions. As election night goes on, it becomes clear it’s not enough to save Underwood. Turnout is down in Gaffney, meaning he likely won’t take his home of South Carolina. Turnout is down in Philadelphia, making Pennsylvania tough to hold. In the last hours of the campaign Underwood uses his resources to force poll closings in Tennessee and Ohio, hoping to suppress late-voting Republicans. As the night wears on, the electoral map comes into focus. Late in the evening all states seem to be projected except Ohio (which is called at one point for Conway then taken back) and Tennessee. The end result is an election where Tennessee and Ohio, due to early vote closures, refuse to certify their results, sending to the vote to the House of Representatives. Its never stated who lead the vote in these two states. Late in the night, this map is seen on the TV screens.
What is most striking is that for a show that is very unrealistic (unless you watch Loose Change all day), the electoral map makes a good degree of sense. Margins are never stated, but the general pattern is one any political operative could image. Underwood takes New England, the Midwest, and West Coast. Conway takes the small rural states and the south. Underwood takes New Mexico, which is more Democratic than Colorado or Nevada. Conway winning Pennsylvania makes sense and it is implied Wisconsin and Michigan are very close. By all accounts Conway was on the way to take Ohio as well, if not for the poll closures. Underwood’s competitiveness in Tennessee may seem odd, but could be attributed to his southern pull. Tennessee’s closeness is regarded in the show as a circumstance of the poll closures, with the GOP campaign asserting the state is safe for them earlier in the night. Perhaps the only true odd state in this is West Virginia, which has become solidly Republican in recent cycles. However, considering Underwood’s southern appeal and Conway being from New York, its possible to see this ancestral-Dem state going blue. The state did after all elect Trump and a Democratic Governor in 2016. Of course this whole election falls under a campaign of fear, terror, troops, voting questions, and an atmosphere that can make results less predictable while still conforming to general partisan leanings.
The chaos to determine the next President doesn’t stop there.. but that’s enough spoilers for this article.
House of Cards is very much a fantasy, a dark tale of politics. It serves as a counter to the West Wing, which gave us the bright, everyone trying to do their best with noble intentions, side. Many scenarios of House of Cards are unrealistic. In fact, Underwood’s tactics to suppress the vote are not very realistic either. But you know what was realistic…. that electoral map!