Looking at the US as a “patchwork nation”

The Knight Foundation has been very good about ensuring their grantees know each other, so many of the projects presented at our meeting in Chicago today are pretty familiar to me. But I hadn’t heard about Patchwork Nation, a project funded by Knight to “explode the myth of red and blue America.” Managed by Dante Chinni, a former politics columnist with the Christian Science Monitor, the project builds on work done by professor James Gimpel. Gimpel has crunched huge sets of demographic and census data and classified American counties not as red (Republican, conservative, religious) and blue (Democratic, liberal, secular), but in eleven different categories.

These categories include some predictable ones, like industrial cities and immigrant epicentres – it also includes some communities I hadn’t thought about, like boom towns (rapidly expanding communities, especially in the mountain west) and service worker centers (areas where almost all jobs are in hospitality, tourism and trades, not in agriculture, education or manufacturing.) I turn out to live in one of these service worker counties, and the generalizations about the county (an increasing hispanic population, more Catholics than Protestants, low median income) turn out to be spot on…

Chinni has picked representative communities in each of these eleven community types and has recruited a blogger there. He emails the bloggers on a weekly basis, soliciting posts with suggested topics. They’re often able to identify political and economic issues that might be invisible to a system just looking at a simple, bipolar view of the nation. Chinni is tracking the travel of the presidential candidates and classifying each destination in terms of these eleven categories – he observes that McCain disproportionately visits boom towns, which tend to provide political and financial support for his work, while Obama’s travel is much broader. (Both, it turns out, spend a lot of time in industrial cities. And unsurprisingly, McCain also spends a lot of time in “empty nest” communities.)

I’m vaguely skeptical of these sorts of reclassifications of political types, but I was impressed by the way in which the Patchwork Nation map matched the character of communities I know well… and I was deeply surprised to discover that I was a close demographic fit for my county according to their survey tool… closer than I am to Cambridge, MA where I work.

The project is getting a great deal of attention and is likely to be featured on Politico.com and NPR in the near future. Will be very interesting to see if American political discourse can expand from two types of communities to eleven. (Which raises the question, of course, of whether more boxes are better, or whether boxes just make you dumb.)

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