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Mapping the Midterms: District Types Offer Data Behind the Races

Patchwork Nation map

There are usually two ways of looking at midterm congressional races, neither of them wholly accurate.

There is the tendency to see the 435 separate House races as completely individual events – an idea that all politics is hyper local. And there is the “national view” of races that they are ultimately about Democratic and Republican pickups and losses in Congress.

Patchwork Nation proposes a third way as the Election Day nears. We have taken all the demographic and voting data we could get about the 435 districts – previous results, occupational patterns, income, religious affiliation, race – and identified nine types of congressional districts. This approach is similar to the one we have used, with great success, in breaking down American counties.

Today we formally unveil that breakdown and map with the hope of getting a more subtle, nuanced picture of the 2010 election. What is moving voters in different types of district? How are economic and cultural forces shaping their votes?

The midterms are about more than a handful of swing districts that might flip this way or that, they are about how people living in different kinds of places think the nation should navigate through a long recession, a complicated foreign policy featuring hot and cold wars overseas, and divisive issues like gay marriage tax cuts for the wealthy.

What We’ll Be Examining

With this new map and set of breakdowns we are uniquely situated to study how different congressional districts – and types of district – think those important matters should be handled. And while we acknowledge there every district is unique, we feel we can get inside some commonalities and report on larger themes in the campaign that many in the media will miss.

We will be able to track everything from where the housing foreclosures are per district and district type to where the Tea Party is holding meetings. And visitors to the site will be able to look at more basic questions like which district and district type has seen the most people moving houses in the last five years – the three districts in Nevada are truly remarkable.

Every district type has a page (like this one) where visitors can see information like occupational and income distributions, votes on key issues (the stimulus and health care bills) and voting trends in previous congressional races. In the next few weeks every congressional district in America will have a page like this on the site.

We think we can use the Patchwork Nation congressional district breakdown to study nine different storylines in the 2010 campaign. We’ll be delving into those in the coming weeks.

The Nine Types

Herewith, a brief look at our nine types with brief descriptions.

Established Wealth. High-income districts principally in larger cities and their suburbs, established n eighborhoods. Full of family-aged residents employed in white-collar jobs.

The Shifting Middle. Middle-income districts in dense established suburbs and midsized cities, with family-aged residents and mixed ethnic populations, including growing Latino presence.

Booming Growth. High-population growth districts in the West primarily, with rising incomes and many residents coming from elsewhere. Employment in information and transportation industries is prevalent, as is Evangelical church affiliation.

Young Exurbs. Districts with younger age distributions, newly settled fringe suburbs and mid-sized towns, growing Latino populations; college educated populations

Old Diversity. Lower income big-city and some small town Southern districts with large African American populations.

New Diversity. Middle income districts largely on the West Coast, with significant Asian American and immigrant populations.

Wired and Educated. Highly educated, youthful districts with single householders, employment in information industries, high college enrollments, large universities, ethnically diverse and secular.

Christian Conservative. White Evangelical Christian populations predominantly in Southern and Border South states and small town/rural districts outside the South. Lower and middle income, with sizable elderly concentrations.

Small Town America. Rural and small town districts in the Midwest, Plains and in the West. Aging and declining populations, though better educated than in the South, with Evangelical and Mainline Protestant presence.

Things to Keep in Mind

These groups were identified by University of Maryland Professor James Gimpel – a consultant to the Patchwork Nation – and as he notes there are outliers among these types. Not every district is a perfect match.

As we discovered with Patchwork Nation’s county breakdown, analyses like this one are not easy. Counties can be big and diverse. And that is doubly true with congressional districts, which are often drawn in odd ways to create certain voting blocks or to break them up.

Some are massive – the entire state of Montana is a congressional district, as are the Dakotas and Wyoming – and that leads to challenges.

For instance, Montana and Wyoming’s districts fall into the Shifting Middle, while North and South Dakota are Small Town America. Why is that? Because even thought Montana and Wyoming are vast, their population centers are geographically small – and they are changing. The Dakotas are vast, but their population is more spread out and the states are losing population.

But we feel the district breakdown here represents a serious effort to get beyond the “horserace” coverage of swing districts and into the more complicated decisions that go into the vote in various districts.

Please take some time. Click around the map, explore your district and feel free to leave any comments or questions.

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