When it comes to the country’s political leanings, forget your pollsters, your pundits, your panjandrums—Amazon has taken the nation’s political pulse, and it’s conservatives by a country mile.
At least when it comes to buying books. The online retailer has created an “election heat map” that attempts to analyze the book-buying habits of its users according to political leanings. To be fair, the site makes a point of saying “books aren’t votes, so a map of book purchases may reflect curiosity as much as commitment.”
According to the company’s calculations, more people are buying “red” books (think Edward Klein’s The Amateur) than “blue” (Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States). The split at the time of this writing was 56 percent “red,” 44 percent “blue.” In elections, those are nearly landslide numbers.
What makes a book blue or red? Perusing the Amazon (AMZN) list, some designations may leave you scratching your head. Sure, Klein’s The Amateur is an unsympathetic portrayal of Barack Obama (part of the book’s description reads, “The Amateur argues that Obama’s toxic combination of incompetence and arrogance have run our nation and his presidency off the rails”). But other books on the red and blue lists defy easy categorization. Can one really say that Robert Caro’s fourth installment of his LBJ biography is necessarily a “blue” book? And even Killing Lincoln, a retelling of the Lincoln assassination written by conservative talk-show host Bill O’Reilly, is not a polemic but a pulpy work of narrative nonfiction.
“It’s not a scientific survey, but we took it very seriously,” says Chris Schluep, Amazon’s senior books editor, who was part of the team that put the map together. “We intended it to get people talking, to get them thinking about books and politics in a new way.”
What about categorizing O’Reilly’s book about President Lincoln as a “red” book? “Well, Lincoln was a Republican, but that doesn’t add much.” Schluep says. “We did take into consideration Mr. O’Reilly’s background, as well as the buying habits of people who bought this book.”
People who buy Killing Lincoln also buy Laura Hillebrand’s Unbroken, which seems pretty mainstream.
“They do, but what they don’t buy is The Audacity of Hope,” Schluep adds.
So it’s not meant to be an indication of how the election will turn out?
“I think if you presented the map that way, it would be very misleading,” Schluep says.
The sales data the map uses are updated every hour. Check in over the course of a day, and you may see a state go from gray (neutral, indicating an even split of red and blue books) to red.
And that’s usually the progression—to red, not to blue—which may reflect a larger trend in the country, though not necessarily an electoral one: Conservative books outsell liberal ones. Indeed, the best-selling conservative book, Dinesh D’Souza’s Obama’s America: Unmaking the American Dream, is No. 36 on Amazon’s list of bestsellers. The bestselling liberal book, Zinn’s People’s History of the United States, reaches only No. 117 on that same list (to be fair, Zinn’s book has been out since 1980).
But isn’t that usually the case? The party that does not control the White House often has more grievances to air than the incumbent party. “When we had an open election in 2008, the map was more evenly split,” Schluep says.
There are two other data points to take from Amazon’s map: While the overall picture may be red, when you pit one candidate’s book against the other’s, it’s an Obama landslide. Obama’s The Audacity of Hope is preferred three-to-two over Mitt Romney’s No Apology: The Case for America.
And among the conservative titles, the top three bestsellers aren’t even printed books at all—they’re Kindle editions. Perhaps “blue” book buyers are more nostalgic for older media. Or maybe they’re underrepresented because they still want to support their local independent bookseller.