Every four years when the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary roll around, the critics and cynics question why such unrepresentative patches of America get to vote first in presidential nominating contests. Why is so much political power, they complain, given to states that are more white and more rural than the rest of the country?
So, we attempted to quantitatively evaluate the critique — and try to come up with which states actually were the most representative of the average of the entire country, in what we're calling the Perfect State Index. In creating the PSI, we looked at five categories race, education, age, income and religion. (We explain the methodology, how we arrived there and analyze each category in detail further down.)
Below is an interactive table, which you can sort the results by category. So, which states came out on top?
The Overall Winner: Illinois
Religion: (tie) Florida, Indiana, Iowa, North Dakota
Methodology — why we chose these five factors?
It's complicated, and, true, our metrics, are somewhat arbitrary. There are a dozen ways (or more) you could slice and dice Census data to decide which demographic factors are most important. But, we felt that in terms of understanding political behavior — these five indicators were the most important.
We ran the data by Bill Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, and he insisted that of all the factors we were considering, race was by far the most important indicator of political behavior.
"Race is one where there's a sharp divide between how whites vote and how most minorities vote," Frey said. "The race classification ... is a really good indicator to understand something about how elections are going to turn out."
And, Frey encouraged us to place a higher priority on race, because it often correlates with income, education, and, perhaps even religion.
"By that I mean — in a state like Mississippi, which has a relatively high black population, that may also have some bearing on Mississippi's income rank, and on its education rank," Frey explained. (Mississippi has the lowest median household income in the country, as you can see from our table.)
So, with Frey's guidance, we decided to give a little more power to the "race" category. (All the other categories are not weighted).
For each of our five indicators, we compared every state in the country to either the U.S. median value or the percentage of the national population. That allowed us to see how far each state diverged from the quintessential American "middle."
So, for example, in the map below you'll notice that both California (38.5 percent white) and Maine (93.8 percent white) fared poorly on the race index, but for obviously different reasons. Our index looks at the absolute value — it doesn't matter whether a state is better or worse than the U.S. average; it matters how much a state differs from "mainstream" America.
For each category, every state received a ranking from 1 to 50. We then added the individual rankings together to give each state a final score.
Below, you'll see which state ranked the highest in the five individual categories.
We analyzed 2014 U.S. Census data to compare the racial make-up of each state to the country as a whole. We included all the categories the Census uses: black or African-American; American Indian or Alaska Native; Asian/Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander; Two or More Races; Hispanic or Latino; and White Alone Not Hispanic or Latino.
And, the reason we used the Census subcategories is that it gives us a more accurate racial portrait of each state. If we had only looked at "minorities" compared to "whites," we would have gotten a skewed picture. For example, had we ranked solely based on "minority" population, combining all the racial subgroups, Alaska would have ranked near the top. But it has a disproportionately large Native American population, a group which has a relatively minor voting effect on American politics at a national level.
We wanted to find a state that more closely mirrors the country's racial portrait — and Illinois does that, almost perfectly. If you look at every group: Latinos, Asians, blacks — Illinois' respective populations are nearly identical to the country's at large.
That doesn't surprise Frey from Brookings. He points out that Illinois has mirrored the country's historical mass migrations.
First, white ethnic immigrant groups, such as those from Polish and Italian ancestry moved to the state. Then, during the Great Migration of the early 20th century, African-Americans from the South settled in Chicago. And, then, in the last 30 to 40 years, thousands of Hispanics, particularly Mexicans, moved to the city.
"And, all of that is due to that fact that Chicago has been this kind of central place that has been emblematic of these different kinds of movements," Frey explained. "I don't think there's any other metropolitan area, or any other state really, that has all of these elements. ... Different parts of the country have had pieces of these things. But, Chicago has had them all in different sequences. And, so right now, we have a snapshot of a metropolitan area that's a lot like the U.S. population."
And, as blacks, Latinos and Asians diversified the city, Frey said, old urban white ethnics moved to the suburbs and the rural farmlands. He added that the mix of urban and rural coupled with white suburbanization makes Illinois a good bellwether of what's gone on in the United States as a whole in recent decades.
We looked at the percent of the population that was older than 25 in each state with a bachelor's degree or higher, as tracked by Census data between 2010 and 2014.
Minorities of all educational levels tend to vote Democratic, but, as we've written elsewhere, there seems to be a growing political educational divide within the white population.
In Delaware, 29.4 percent of the total population has graduated with bachelor's degree or higher. (In the U.S. as a whole, 29.3 percent has at least a bachelor's degree). Frey said Delaware's mainstream-level of education may be due to its geography.
"It's an important state, but it is considered to be kind of a suburb of Philadelphia writ large," he said, "and increasingly college graduates have been living and moving to the suburbs, and that's part of what Delaware is as well."
He was, perhaps, more intrigued by the next few highly ranked states. "You also see in this list states you might not have expected to see there — Montana, Nebraska, Oregon," Frey said. "It shows this median level of education is pretty pervasive in all different parts of the country, not just concentrated in a few places."
We used 2014 Census data to compare the median age in each state to the U.S. median age of 37.7.
"It's good to know that Virginia is in the middle," said Frey, but he's skeptical that it means much, because there are a clump of states that roughly reflect the U.S. median age.
What's more important are the states toward the bottom of the list. "What you want to look at — is states that are kind of on the extremes," Frey added. "And, when you're thinking of the extremes, you're thinking of some of the New England states, Pennsylvania, West Virginia – those are states that a lot of the young people have left over the years."
And that brings us to New Hampshire. The early voting state is one of the oldest in the country (tied with Vermont for 47th on the age index). In fact, the aging population has even become a concern for voters in the state. At a recent campaign event, one woman described New Hampshire as going through a "silver tsunami."
For election purposes, Frey says the 65 and older population is key. "Those are the kinds of populations," he noted, "at least in recent elections [that] have tended to veer more toward Republican candidates in presidential elections."
And they vote.
Frey added that a state's median age is often indicative of recent regional migration patterns.
"A lot of immigrants have come to parts of the country and made their populations younger," he said, "a lot of it is in the South and the West."
And, indeed, immigration may help explain why Virginia did so well in the age category when its neighbor West Virginia did so poorly.
There are lots of different economic indicators we could have used to measure the "wealth" of a state: the unemployment rate, the percent of people who own houses, or median household income. With the advice of our economics editor Marilyn Geewax, we opted to go with the 2010 to 2014 median household income (in 2014 dollars).
For the country at large, that is $53,482.
Income is a tough measure, because the cost of living differs wildly from Mississippi to Manhattan. But, it's also an important metric, because the economy is so often the most important issue for voters.
Pennsylvania's income levels are so incredibly average that it differed from the U.S. median by less than a percent. Frey points to Pennsylvania's geography and mix of urban, suburban, rural communities as a possible explanation for economic diversity.
"Pennsylvania ... has the average of those urban areas like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh," Frey said. "And then [in] the inner part of the state, it's a little more rural."
Interestingly, the first nominating state of Iowa also ranked high on the average-income calculator, coming in third. But Frey thinks Iowa fared well for different reasons — partly because it's an overwhelmingly white state and partly because it's in the middle of the country with an average cost of living.
The states that did poorly also tell us something important. New Jersey and Maryland were 49th and 50th, respectively. Both states are wealthier and largely overgrown suburbs of New York and Philadelphia (in New Jersey's case) and Washington, D.C., when it comes to the population center of south-central Maryland.
"It's suburban New York and suburban D.C., and some pretty rich suburbs," Frey said. "Some of the richest suburban counties in the country are in New Jersey and Maryland."
And so, even though New Jersey and Maryland did well on other metrics, such as race or age, they didn't do well in the overall PSI because of income.
There was a four-way tie for first place in the religion index. And, that's partly because the data isn't as nuanced. Statistics for all the other categories were collected and compiled through the Census Bureau.
But, the Census doesn't ask Americans about religion. Given the central role of religion in campaign politics, and the degree to which religiosity predicts political behavior, we thought it was an important metric to include.
To assess "religiosity," which can often be an amorphous attitude in itself, we used data from the 2014 Religious Landscape Study, a comprehensive survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, which interviewed more than 35,000 Americans from all 50 states. We looked at a one specific aspect of this study: the percent of adults in each state who said religion was "very important" in their lives.
In the U.S. as a whole, and in Iowa in particular, 53 percent of adults said religion was "very important" in their lives. As Iowa prays, so prays the country ... apparently.
Iowa's mainstream status on the religious index might seem surprising given the extent to which the white, Christian conservative vote is courted by GOP presidential candidates there. But, there two things to keep in mind:
- The definition of an evangelical is murky, as NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben has previously reported, and
- The GOP caucus attracts religious activists, so the evangelical community's real numbers are over-inflated in media reports. On the Democratic side, religion is essentially a non-issue. And, in both 2008 and 2012, President Obama won Iowa in the general election.
So while people might think of Iowa as a religious state, it's only actually, as a whole, as religious as the country. In fact, there are many other states that are far more religious. Think: Alabama, where 77 percent of people said religion was "very important" in their lives.
New Hampshire, on the other hand, is far more secular. New Hampshire came in 46th in the category of people saying that religion was "very important" to them. Just 33 percent of adults in New Hampshire said religion was "very important" to them. And, 36 percent described themselves as "religiously unaffiliated," which means they don't identify with any organized religion.
It's one of the least religious states in the country, second only to Sen. Bernie Sanders' home state of Vermont.
Illinois — perfectly average
Illinois borders a traditional East-West divide in the country — the Mississippi River. It snakes across the state's western edge, separating it from Iowa. And it's a microcosm of the country in nearly ever category. Specifically, it ranked in the top 10 for race, age, and religion.
It's almost comical that the most perfectly average state neighbors Iowa, the state that gets to go first in presidential nominating contests.
In many ways, Illinois is geographically and demographically similar to Iowa, particularly in the southern and western regions of the state. The major difference is Chicago — an urban core the kind Iowa just doesn't have.
"It's as diverse as the country, but not overly diverse," Frey said. "It's probably a little more urban than the country as a whole because of the greater Chicago metropolitan area, but a lot of that is the suburbs and the suburbs are representative of much of America."
Plus, he added, Illinois also has a "rural component, which is important."
"[Illinois] ... may not be a swing state," Frey said, "but in terms of its demographics, I think people would do well to look at how the voting goes there to get a better understanding of what's going on in the country as a whole."
And, while people might think of Illinois as a blue state, it currently has a Republican governor and a Republican senator, albeit one who will be in a tough re-election fight in a presidential year.
Also, it's only fairly recently, since 1992, that the state started voting reliably for Democrats in presidential years. From 1968 to 1988, Illinois voted consistently Republican. In fact, Illinois' record is more accurate, than partisan. Throughout the 20th century, Illinois voted for the winner in every presidential election, with the exception of two: Woodrow Wilson in 1916 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.
If anything, Frey, says perhaps Illinois is a racial bellwether. In 2014, the country's under-age-5 population became majority-minority, and so, in years to come, Frey said the racial makeup of the rest of the country is likely going to look more similar to Illinois.
A reality check on Iowa and New Hampshire?
Iowa, the state that goes first in our current political system, according to the PSI, came in 16th place overall.
That's not too bad, considering it could have been worse. New Hampshire, for example, was 49th, nearly dead last.
To be fair, Iowa is representative of the country on most of our metrics, with the exception of race.
A number of states East Coasters derisively refer to as "flyover states" — Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa and Missouri — actually all fared quite well on the PSI, especially if race was excluded.
So, in some ways, it seems the heartland is a fairly accurate portrait of average America, if it was more racially diverse. But, race is such an important factor that Frey thinks it outweighs Iowa's advantages. In the race category, Iowa was in the bottom 10, finishing 40th, with just a 3.4 percent black population and a 5.6 percent Hispanic population.
New Hampshire, though, is even more of an outlier. The only state that fared worse overall was West Virginia.
By every measure, New Hampshire is horribly unrepresentative of the country — people make too much money, they're graying, over-educated, overwhelmingly white and not nearly religious enough.
The question, of course, is whether these two states should continue to serve as litmus tests for candidates.
"It's for the parties to decide," Frey said, "but I have to say as a demographer, the more stock you put into these two states, as we become more diverse as a country, the more we'll be out of touch with what the rest of the country's going to be voting like."