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Patchwork Nation: Snapshots of the Nation’s Electorate

While all the conversation tonight will be about the battle for control of Congress, analysts and experts note that the “battle” is actually 435 smaller contests, each with its own demographic makeup and ideological terrain.

True enough.

But Patchwork Nation believes that when you look at all those little sagas, some broader storylines emerge. It’s why we have broken those 435 districts into nine types – to see how those individual stories, looked at the right way, can reveal bigger themes.

In the last few weeks Patchwork Nation has traveled with the PBS NewsHour to visit some of the most hotly contested congressional races in the Midwest – Indiana’s 9th, Ohio’s 16th and Michigan’s 7th. Those districts in particular offer insights into some of the themes that viewers may want to pay close attention to on Tuesday.

Here is a primer on those races, and what they may tell about the electorate beyond their borders:

Will the Young Show Up? – Indiana 9 – Baron Hill vs. Todd Young

Hill, a Democrat, won this seat by a slim four percent margin in 2006, and then buried his opponent, Mark Sodrel, in a 2008 rematch by some 20 percentage points in 2008. What was the difference? A big one was Bloomington, home of the Indiana University. It is because of IU that the 9th falls into the district category that Patchwork Nation calls Wired and Educated.

The college-age voters in this town were fired up to vote for Barack Obama in 2008, but when we visited in mid-October most of the student body seemed to think the word “midterm” was more loosely related to exams than politics.

Bloomington and its home, Monroe County, are only part of a complicated district that has strong conservative evangelical elements, small town rural counties and even some money on the outskirts of Louisville, but they are an important part.

In 2006, Monroe County had the lowest turnout of any county in the 9th district (32 percent) and carried the county by some 8,000 votes. In 2008, Monroe had the highest turnout of any county in the district and Hill carried it by more than 18,000 votes. Hill could use that kind of help against Todd Young.

In a tough year, Democrats are desperately trying to get out the youth vote everywhere. The 9th might offer some indication as to whether they will go to the polls.

Can the Dems Hold Conservative Districts? – Ohio 16 – John Boccieri vs. Jim Renacci

By most accounts, Ohio’s 16th is one of those districts the Democrats probably should not hold. Until Boccieri won this seat in 2008, it had been under Republican control for more than 50 years.

Outside of Canton, the district’s “big city,” the 16th unfolds as a string of small towns, full of older voters and conservative values. There are still here, some remnants of the old solidly Democratic union vote, but much of the 16th could be thought of the kind of conservative Catholic terrain that gives the party fits.

Boccieri ran as a moderate Democrat in 2008, but Renacci has taken great pains to point out the incumbent’s votes in favor health care reform, the stimulus bill, and “cap and trade.” Those are the kinds of issues that don’t necessarily play well in the 16th. Add in the fact that the district is struggling economically – worse than it has been really for the past two decades – and you have a very tough road for Boccieri.

The 16th is not the only district with these challenges for the Democrats. There are 17 Small Town America districts like it around the country and they are, at the moment, fairly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. There is reason to believe the GOP may be ready to take many of these seats back. What happens in the 16th could be an indicator of what to expect nationally.

Moderate Districts, Conservative Candidates – Michigan’s 7th – Mark Sauder vs. Tim Walberg

The hodge-podge of counties, municipalities and suburbs that fall into Michigan’s 7th make it many things. It has its bastions of conservatism down in Hillsdale County and its blue-collar feel around Battle Creek. It also takes in wealthier areas like the suburbs of Ann Arbor and Lansing. Put it all together and you have a fairly moderate electorate.

Mark Schauer won the seat by running as a moderate Democrat in 2008. He even won the endorsement of a moderate Republican who had held the seat before him, Joe Schwarz.

The moderate, vote-splitting feel of the 7th is one of the hallmarks of the category it falls into in Patchwork Nation, Established Wealth. These 82 districts lean slightly right, but are pretty evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans and the split has grown more even in recent years.

This year Schauer is in a rematch with Tim Walberg, a candidate who makes no bones about his conservative bona fides. Walberg has questioned whether President Barack Obama is actually a U.S. citizen, and has called for privatizing Social Security.

Walberg held this seat from 2006 – 2008, but publicity over his conservative stances, and a big year for Democrats, accounted for his loss to Schauer.

So, in the 7th two of this year’s biggest trends do battle – the struggles of the Democratic Party and the GOP’s nomination of candidates who lean solidly right. The outcome of the race here may offer some insights into how those two issues play out in districts full of moderate voters.

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