If you do enough cross-country traveling – especially as a roving reporter – a small town in Indiana, an exurb in Virginia, and a metro center in California starts to look sort of familiar.
“You end up in suburban Ohio, or suburban Columbus,” says Dante Chinni, a veteran journalist who lives in Washington. “And it’s not really any different from suburban Minneapolis, or suburban Nashville. Or, when you get down to it, suburban Philadelphia or suburban Orlando. Those places are all kind of similar.”
This is not, however, how we generally think about the demographic makeup of America. And it’s certainly not how we talk about it during an election year, when the most cited demographic analysis boils down to a binary one between "red states" and "blue states," one that implies a voter in Chicago has more in common with a downstate farmer than he does a professional in Atlanta.
"I just thought," Chinni says of all those similar suburbs, "that there had to be a way to capture that."
Chinni had this thought on the eve of the 2008 election, and he’s since developed a way to parse the nation’s population into the demographics that really explain our politics, even our economy and our values. His demographic categories, in a country he calls “Patchwork Nation,” include "boom towns," "monied ‘burbs,” "military bastions," "industrial metropolises" and "service worker centers."
The common denominator among all of them – Chinni divides us into 12 groups – is that they are grounded in geography. Not so with "women voters" or "NASCAR dads."
"We talk about these demographic groups as though they’re completely disconnected from place," Chinni says. "We have an election, and we do this all the time, we talk about what these different voters are going to do, what the ‘women’s vote’ is going to do, which is really silly. Or we talk about 'Catholics.'"
The Patchwork Nation map of America instead assigns all 3,100 counties in the country to one of these 12 categories, based on a data analysis that weighs everything from local income to education to average age. There are "empty nest" communities (with a high proportion of reitrees), and "campus and career" communities (cities with young, educated populations). The resulting map allows Chinni, and the media outlets that have been partnering with him, to tell us, for example, that Mitt Romney won 43 percent of the vote in the monied ‘burbs of New Hampshire Tuesday night.
This is, in many ways, a more significant piece of information than knowing that Romney won 35 percent of the single people in the state, who comprise both first-time voting college kids and elderly rural widowers.
"The way I often think about it is you could be the most conservative person in the world, but if you live in New York City, it’s hard to be against mass transit subsidies," Chinni says. "The city couldn’t function. You know that, you live there, you understand that."
Demographics married to place, in other words, can tell us a lot more than demographics alone. Journalists, Chinni says, haven’t been very good at combining these two ideas. And while they are good at talking about groups, they’re not particularly good at talking about communities.
"There are evangelicals in every community," he says, for example. "There are a lot of evangelicals in Washington, D.C. But there aren’t as many as there are of other things. What we’re able to capture with this is what happens when you have a community that’s full of evangelicals. That’s the dominant force in the community, and it changes the community."
In fact, it changes it into something Chinni calls an "evangelical epicenter."
We can apply this lens to all kinds of data sets. One thing Chinni has found is that Barack Obama and Romney have been getting most of their campaign contributions from the same place: the monied ‘burbs. And this – combined with the fact that the monied ‘burbs contain the largest population of any of Patchwork America’s categories – suggests that the general election may largely be fought there.
Of course, you’d never know that if you were just looking for soccer moms.
"People have this thinking now where it’s just ‘wow, geography doesn’t matter any more because of the Internet,’" Chinni says. "And it’s just not true."
Top photo credit: Adam Hunger/Reuters