American Voter 2012: Our Political Color Coding


The American Voter 2012:  

Spotlight on How We Vote and Why  ____________________________________________

A 10-article series by Lawrence E. McCullough on how our voting behavior is analyzed and influenced in the Age of PAC and Tweet.


* Originally Published in the Hall Institute of Public Policy-NJ weekly newsletter at www.hallnj.org.


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Column 1:  Our Political Color Coding

ACCORDING TO A TEAM of Jefferson Institute researchers, U.S. politics can’t be accurately viewed as a nation of just Red, Blue and/or Purple voters.

Our political pigmentation is much more nuanced. And quicker to change hue than a cheap tie-dye in the wrong wash cycle.

The 2010 publication of Our Patchwork Nation: The Surprising Truth about the "Real" America shattered conventional wisdom by looking at American voting behavior through a deeper and wider demographic/cultural lens.

As developed by veteran political journalist Dante Chinni and University of Maryland government professor James Gimpel, Our Patchwork Nation posits two premises: 

(1)  U.S. state and national elections are fundamentally decided at the county level;

(2)  each county bears a dominant voting profile shaped by a complex amalgam of social and economic factors peculiar to that locality.

Patchwork Nation methodology divides America’s 3,141 counties into 12 types of voter communities based on cross-analysis of dozens of statistical categories including income level, ethnic composition, employment, religion, housing stock indicators, consumer expenditures, population density, migration figures, property taxes, charitable contributions and more.

The resulting data mix, claim Chinni and Gimpel, provides a sharper portrait of the active social and psychological factors that influence American voters — everyday, non-ideological factors shaped by what people perceive when they work, shop, recreate, go to church and walk through their neighborhoods.

Instead of categories like Echo Boomer, Soccer Mom or NASCAR Dad, Our Patchwork Nation offers these 12 community-based descriptions:

1.             Service Worker Centers (658 counties, 21.0% of total)
Midsize and small towns with economies fueled by hotels, stores and restaurants and lower-than average median household income by county

2.            Evangelical Epicenters (473 counties, 15.1% of total)
Communities with a high proportion of evangelical Christians, found mostly in small towns and suburbs; slightly older than the U.S. average

3.            Boom Towns (385 counties, 12.2% of total)
Fast growing communities with rapidly diversifying populations       

4.            Minority Central (361 counties, 11.5% of total)
Home to large pockets of African-American residents but a below average percentage of Hispanics and Asians

5.           Tractor Country (309 counties, 9.8% of total)
Mostly rural and remote smaller towns with older populations and large agricultural sectors

6.            Monied Burbs (286 counties, 9.1% of total)
Wealthier, highly educated communities with a median household income of $15,000 above the national county average

7.            Emptying Nests (248 counties, 7.9% of total)
Home to many retirees and aging baby boomer populations; less diverse than the nation at large

8.            Immigration Nation (204 counties, 6.5% of total)
Communities with large Hispanic populations and lower-than-average incomes, typically clustered in the South and Southwest

9.            Campus and Careers (76 counties, 2.4 % of total)
Cities and towns with young, educated populations; more secular than other American communities

10.        Military Bastions (57 counties, 1.8% of total)
Areas with high employment in the military or related to the presence of the military and large veteran populations

11.         Mormon Outposts (43 counties, 1.4% of total)
Home to a large share of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints and slightly higher median household incomes

12.         Industrial Metropolis (41 counties, 1.3% of total)
Densely populated, highly diverse urban centers; incomes trend higher than the national average

By this standard, slightly more than 1/5 of the nation’s counties are Service Worker Centers — communities whose economic present and future depends upon the health of the national and even global economy and the fickle travel habits of outsiders.

A Patchwork Nation reading would suggest that elections in these counties will consistently reflect a different set of priorities than elections in the less economically fluid Tractor Country and Emptying Nests counties (17.7%); the ongoing concern Service Worker Center voters have about the future makes them less predictable in terms of traditional party, ethnic or regional loyalty.

Here’s the Patchwork breakdown for New Jersey:

New Jersey:  (21 counties)

1.     Monied Burbs – 11 counties, 52% of county total
      (Bergen, Burlington, Gloucester, Hunterdon, Mercer, Morris, Monmouth, Salem, Somerset,
      Sussex, Warren)

2.     Industrial Metropolis  – 7 counties, 33% of county total
      (Atlantic, Camden, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Passaic, Union)

3.     Service Worker Centers – 2 counties, 10% of total
      (Cape May, Ocean)

4.     Minority Central – 1 county, 5% of total
      (Cumberland)


Here’s a comparison with another state that has a similar number of counties but strikingly different voter typology:


Wyoming:  (23 counties)

1.     Tractor Country – 14 counties, 60% of county total

2.     Boom Towns – 5 counties, 22% of county total

3.     Monied Burbs – 2 counties, 9% of county total

4.     Mormon Outposts – 2 counties, 9% of county total


Comparing New Jersey (population 8,821,155) with the state closest in population (Virginia - 8,096,604) shows a significantly contrasting profile:


Virginia: (134 counties)

1.     Monied Burbs – 28 counties, 21% of county total

2.     Minority Central – 26 counties, 19% of county total

3.     Service Worker Centers – 26 counties, 19% of county total

4.     Boom Towns – 24 counties, 18% of county total

5.     Evangelical Epicenters – 13 counties, 10% of county total

6.     Military Bastions – 6 counties, 5% of county total

7.     Emptying Nests – 5 counties, 4% of county total

8.     Tractor Country – 3 counties, 2% of county total

9.     Campus and Careers – 3 counties, 2% of county total





Step back a sec. 

Salem County, New Jersey in the Monied Burb category? 

Atlantic County part of the Industrial Metropolis set?

Numbers may not lie, but they do present many truths at once. Chinni and Gimpel explain that the dominant identity score for each county is a median number representing the full confluence of variables. 

A county with a sizable retirement imprint might also have an active service economy staffed by immigrants; a large county might contain a heterogeneous population spanning several categories, with only one category decisively defining the average voting pattern.

Details on Patchwork Nation methodology are found at http://www.patchworknation.org. 

The website is a datatician’s delight of interactively mapped micro-surveys such as Hardship Index Comparison, Broadband Access:  Exploring Internet Connectivity by U.S. Community Type, Percent Attending Church Regularly, Professional/Science Sector Employment, Tea Party Meetups July-Sept. 2010, Percent Who Moved to a Different House in the Last 5 Years, Percent Living in Food Deserts and many more.

Increasingly, political strategists are turning toward Patchwork Nation-style data digging to gain fresh insight into a candidate’s strengths and weaknesses.

“We’re seeing a new sophistication in the ability to correlate and interpret data that was formerly too dense and diffuse to have much practical value to an active political campaign,” says Michael P. Riccards, Executive Director of the Hall Institute of Public Policy. 

“Patchwork Nation methodology can help explain voting patterns that previously couldn’t be understood by just looking at a few broad factors like ethnicity, income or gender.”

However, Riccards notes that Patchwork Nation’s detailed voter typology highlights the growing emergence of homophily in U.S. political life – the “birds of a feather flock together” phenomenon. 

“The greater number of distinct voter types suggests that the American electorate may be more polarized than ever.”
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