America's 'Patchwork Nation' and the 2010 Elections

Author Dante Chinni says America can be divided into 12 distinct “community types.”

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The major challenge Democrats seem to face heading into the midterm elections is keeping blue states from turning red. But in Our Patchwork Nation, journalist Dante Chinni and political geographer James Gimpel say these primary colors don't accurately capture voters' thinking and behavior. Instead, the authors divide the nation into 12 community types—from Boom Towns to Industrial Metropolises—to show the very different factors that drive Americans to the polls. Chinni chatted with U.S. News recently about, among other things, communities to watch in this election cycle. Excerpts:

How is the United States a "patchwork nation"?

Well, you drive an hour and a half outside of a major metropolitan area and you realize you're in a pretty different place. Then you drive an hour and a half outside of there, and you're in a different place again. But when you go and see all these different places—maybe you're in the middle of nowhere in Minnesota—you start to realize, "You know, this is not really that different from that place I was in New Mexico."

How did you classify the 3,141 U.S. counties into 12 groups?

We use demographic data points, stuff from the Census Bureau. We look at factors like occupation, to race, to income, to religious adherence and religious sects, and we do this by looking at the way those things break down in a community, not just as an individual.

Describe some of these communities.

I think some of them will look familiar to people. We have one called the Industrial Metropolis, and that's kind of the counties containing the nation's most diverse, most complicated cities. Then there's something called the Monied 'Burbs, the wealthy areas around those cities. Then there are Service Worker Centers, like small towns outside metropolitan areas.

How permanent are they?

The big census data are coming up soon, and when we get that we will look at everything again and rejigger, and some counties may move and that's part of the dynamic part of the project. We are entering a period where things are going to change a lot. Economically, things are very unstable. And culturally, things are rapidly changing—technology changes leading to a cultural change.

Which are more likely to change?

I wouldn't be surprised if sometime in the next decade that some communities fall out of the Monied 'Burbs. I wouldn't be shocked if we had to create a new type, like the Super Wealthy. The increasing disparities between rich and poor are going to start to manifest themselves. The Service Worker Centers are in for a hard road ahead. They don't have a lot of ways to generate income on their own.

What kinds of factors indicate whether groups will vote to the left or to the right?

You're going to see an increase in the vote from the Evangelical Epicenters and that's going to be more strongly Republican. Another group is Boom Towns. They are suffering and they're going to be looking to take that anger out on somebody.

Where do most Tea Party members live?

At the time we did it in the book in March 2010, it was the Boom Towns that had the highest number—in terms of measuring intensity. But the Tea Party really looks like different things in different places. When you go to Immigration Nation, the Tea Party sites there are very angry about immigration. Then when you go to these evangelical communities, there's definitely a religious tone. It's like the Glenn Beck idea of the Tea Party.

[Check out our editorial cartoons on the Tea Party.]

How do you think the movement will impact the 2010 elections?

I do think it will have more impact on Senate races and gubernatorial races where it's just the state vote, compared to congressional races. In the long run, if the Tea Party really has a good election and gets a lot of its candidates to the Senate, it is going to have huge problems ultimately. I mean, they all tend to agree on smaller government and less taxes, which are traditionally Republican ideas, but their secondary issues are all so big and so different. I think they'll get to Congress and there'll be a lot of fights.