Earlier this week, Jim VandeHei, a former executive editor of Politico, wrote an op-ed article for The Wall Street Journal accusing the Washington political establishment of being out of touch with “normal America.”
“Normal America is right that Establishment America has grown fat, lazy, conventional and deserving of radical disruption,” he wrote, citing his regular visits to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, and Lincoln, Maine, as his credentials of normality.
It’s a familiar accusation in a year in which most presidential candidates are trying to pretend they have nothing to do with the coastal elite, and after one — Ted Cruz — spent weeks attacking “New York values.” Even PBS, a standard-bearer of the media elite, recently featured a quiz designed to assess in-touchness with “mainstream American culture” with questions about fishing, pickup trucks and living in a small town.
But that sense that the normal America is out there somewhere in a hamlet where they can’t pronounce “Acela” is misplaced. In fact, it’s not in a small town at all.
I calculated how demographically similar each U.S. metropolitan area is to the U.S. overall, based on age, educational attainment, and race and ethnicity.1 The index equals 100 if a metro’s demographic mix were identical to that of the U.S. overall.2
By this measure, the metropolitan area that looks most like the U.S. is New Haven, Connecticut, followed by Tampa, Florida, and Hartford, Connecticut. All of the 10 large metros that are demographically most similar to the U.S. overall are in the Northeast, Midwest or center of the country, with the exception of Tampa. Two of them — New Haven and Philadelphia — are even on Amtrak’s Acela (that’s “uh-SELL-ah”) line. None is in the West, though Sacramento, California, comes close at No. 12.
The large metros least demographically similar to the U.S. include McAllen-Edinburg-Mission and El Paso, both in Texas, both of which are younger, less educated and more Latino than the U.S. overall, and Honolulu, where Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders together are the majority.
Oshkosh, by the way, clocks in with a score of 71, and Maine’s Penobscot County, where Lincoln is, has a score of 67: both places deserve less of a claim to “normal America” than the majority of large metros do. 3
Looking across metros of all sizes, the places that look most like America tend to be larger metros, though not the largest ones. The similarity index is highest, on average, for metros with between 1 million and 2 million people. The metros that look least like America are those with fewer than 100,000 people.
We all, of course, have our own notions of what real America looks like. 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. I used the same method to measure which places in America today are most similar demographically to America in 1950, when the country was much whiter, younger and less-educated than today. Of course, nearly every place in the U.S. today looks more like 2014 America than 1950 America. But the large metros that today come closest to looking like 1950 America are Lancaster, Pennsylvania; Ogden and Provo, in Utah; and several in the Midwest and South.
But the places that look today most like 1950 America are not large metros but rather smaller metros and rural areas. Looking across all of America, including the rural areas, the regions that today look most demographically similar to 1950 America are the portion of eastern Ohio around the towns of Cambridge and Coshocton and the Cumberland Valley district in southeastern Kentucky.
These misconceptions affect our politics: an outdated view of “normal America” is baked into the presidential election process. Iowa and New Hampshire, which vote first in the primary season and therefore have disproportionate influence, rank 37th and 41st, respectively, in their similarity to the U.S. overall. The states that look demographically most similar to America are Illinois and New York, followed by New Jersey, Connecticut and Virginia. (Downstate Illinois and upstate New York are worlds apart from Chicago and New York City, as native Rochesterians like me know well.) The states that look least like America are Hawaii, New Mexico, West Virginia, Maine and Vermont, along with the District of Columbia.
Iowa’s and New Hampshire’s places of honor would make more sense if we were electing a president in the 1950s. They rank 11th and 20th, respectively, in how similar their demographics today are to those of 1950 America, though Kentucky, West Virginia and Indiana are the states whose demographics today look most like 1950 America.
There are lots of reasons to care deeply about places that are demographically different from today’s America: Some of those places may turn out to be bellwethers for a future America that will be older, more educated and more racially and ethnically diverse than today; and some of those places are especially deserving of public attention and investment because they worse off than most other places.
But if you’re trying to get outside of your bubble and get in touch with “normal America,” skip the small towns of your actual or imagined past and instead start with New Haven or Tampa.
CORRECTION (7:10 p.m., April 28): An earlier version of this article omitted Tampa when describing the regions of the country containing metro areas demographically similar to the U.S. overall.