This year, like most others, political candidates are falling over one another to claim they represent the real or true America. Turns out, most of them, and many pundits, have the wrong idea of what constitutes real or average America.
Last month, Jim VandeHei, a co-founder of Politico, wrote a column in the Wall Street Journal offering unsolicited advice for this year’s presidential contenders. In the piece, much maligned for its simplistic and contradictory advice, VandeHei wrote that “Normal America is right that Establishment America has grown fat, lazy, conventional and deserving of radical disruption. And the best, perhaps only way to disrupt the establishment is by stealing a lot of Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’s tricks and electing a third-party candidate.”
VandeHei said he was familiar with “normal America” from growing up in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and spending time in his “adopted hometown” of Lincoln, Maine.
Neither place, and especially Maine, represents average America.
Fivethirtyeight, the website known for using data to analyze current events and debates, was quick to post its own analysis. Jed Kolko, an economist and a senior fellow at the University of California, Berkeley, Terner Center for Housing Innovation, crunched the numbers to find those communities that most mirror America’s demographic makeup. He used age, educational attainment, and race and ethnicity as metrics.
Metropolitan areas with between 1 million and 5 million people, not big cities nor small towns, most closely mirror America as a whole.
The New Haven, Connecticut; Tampa, Florida; and Hartford, Connecticut, metro areas topped the list. More broadly, the states most like the United States as a whole are Illinois, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Virginia. The least like the U.S.? Hawaii, New Mexico, West Virginia, Maine and Vermont.
In Kolko’s analysis, a place’s score would equal 100 if its demographic mix were identical to that of the U.S. overall. New Haven, for example, scored 93.2 and Tampa 91.6.
Maine’s Penobscot County had a score of 67; Oshkosh had 71.
“We all, of course, have our own notions of what real America looks like,” Kolko wrote. “Those notions might be based on our own nostalgia or our hopes for the future. If your image of the real America is a small town, you might be thinking of an America that no longer exists.” That nostalgia, of course, isn’t always positive. Many who wish to return to “ real America” and its values favor a time of racial division and limited roles for women.
Kolko’s and VandeHei’s analyses focused on politics, but understanding the demographic makeup of the U.S. and how it is changing is important to decisions ranging from education funding to job training to immigration policy.
Maine, for example, will continue to drift away from national norms of prosperity if it remains the oldest, whitest state in the country. To attract new businesses and expand the ones that are already here, Maine must attract newcomers from other states and other countries, especially educated workers, to replenish the state’s workforce. Already, those moving to Maine are younger and better educated than those born in Maine.
This isn’t a slight against native Mainers or longtime residents. It’s merely a recognition of the changing demographics of the U.S. and how Maine is being left behind. In other words, Maine could be better off it came to more closely resemble “Normal America.”