Tuesday, July 31, 2007

On the Midwest: Looks like the I's have it.

Here are the numbers with the states listed in descending order. Most votes to fewest. The first number listed is the total number of votes. The second number is the percentage of total respondents who voted for each state.

To the question "Which of the following do you consider Midwestern American states" the respondents voted the following.


Iowa---------84 (93%)
Illinois-----79 (87%)
Indiana------77 (85%)
Ohio---------68 (75%)
Wisconsin----67 (74%)
Minnesota----65 (72%)
Michigan-----63 (70%)
Missouri-----58 (64%)
Kansas-------57 (63%)
Nebraska-----54 (60%)
S Dakota-----37 (41%)
N Dakota-----34 (37%)
Pennsylvania--2 (2%)

Here's how I chose to represent those numbers.

I altered the hue value by one click for each percentage point. But instead of graphing each vote as the percentage of total possible votes (90) I represented the highest actual vote count (84) as 100% and the other totals as a percentage of that. It yielded a nice yes/no range from green to red with just a bit more contrast.

I chose all those states that I thought likely to receive votes. In the minute that it took me to choose the states for this poll it seemed to me very unlikely that anyone would choose Kentucky, Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, West Virginia etc. My bias is now clear. My mind is now changed.

But there is an obvious core to the Midwest elected here. The three state swath of Indiana Illinois and Iowa has the support of 85 to 93 percent of total voters. The rest of the Big Ten states look to complete the penumbra (Except of course that latecomer Pennsylvania).

I'm not surprised that PA only go two votes. Some people argued that because it has a coast it cannot possibly be considered a part of the Midwest. Well sure. If you think the Delaware River bank is a coast. But I get the point. It's too far east. Still I am surprised that the drop-off from a Ohio to Pennsylvania is so steep.

The same goes for the Dakotas. They're the only states (other than PA) that got a pass from fewer than 50 percent of the voters. Possible reasons? Maybe "North" and "South" detract from the Midwestern association. Obviously their place in the corner defines them as the farthest edges. But it can't be pure northernness because Minnesota did well. Perhaps the lack of a familiar mid-sized typical city pulls out any 'central states' connotation that the Midwest seems to have. Fargo is the biggest city in ND. Perhaps it has too much "odd" character for the rest of the voters. It feels like another world to me at least. And I lived only 2.5 hours away.

Strange: Iowa the most commonly tagged state (in this poll) but it's not central to the core: it sits on the hard edge. It received the most votes while the abutting Dakotas were shunned.

I'm mostly surprised that no state was considered Midwestern by every voter. I have long thought of Chicago as the center of the Midwest and I expected that Illinois would have gotten every vote. My brother in law volunteered the same view. 13% of the voters don't think of Illinois as Midwestern.

What I would do differently given the opportunity and means:

  • I would ask all respondents to give their home state
    • I would ask all respondents to label their location

  • I would ask for a prose identification of "Midwestern"

  • I would ask each respondent to identify 'major' regions in the country

  • I would list every state to see how far the region spreads

  • I would ask some to identify by looking at a map and some to identify from one of two written lists
    1. I would organize one list alphabetically

    2. I would organize another list geographically

If I had the data I would like to see what the most common groupings are. How much does the size of the region vary? Do people in the Midwest choose fewer states than people outside the Midwest choose? I would guess they (/we) do.

Based on the 'slope' of the votes I make the following guesses regarding other states' numbers. Oklahoma would have gotten close to the Dakotas' level of votes. Kentucky might have gotten a few and Tennessee would have dropped quickly. West Virginia would be about like PA. Maybe 1 vote. Arkansas would be just a tiny bit higher than that. Maybe half a dozen votes. Maybe six. States as far west as Colorado and Arizona would have gotten votes because "Midwestern" is after all "western."

I'm always interested in the emotional direction this discussion often takes. People who see themselves as Midwesterners are often insulted when their state isn't included in a list. And there are some people who take offense if certain states are included. As if some states have no right to be on the list.

There are two basic approaches to the definition. The first is a descriptive approach. From this view the Midwest ranges between 'middle/ just-flirting-with-the-west' -- including the more central states assumed in this poll; and 'middle of the west' -- including such states as Colorado Wyoming and Idaho. Some rely on time zones and exclude any state outside the Central time zone.

The second approach is a purely lexical one. The Midwest is a construct and different groups define it without regard for actual relative geography. Some rely on historical categorization -- noting that the region used to be a middle western region. Some just piggyback their categorization on something like the Big Ten conference or an otherwise unattributed boundary. Often based on perceived culture.

Different regions sometimes conflict and sometimes overlap with each other. Several people have told me they refuse to allow a state to be both a Midwestern and Great Plains state. Some split the Great Plains into Northern and Dustbowl states. The Rocky Mountain states are easy to define. Some are willing to label several states in all these regions as Midwestern states. Here in the Michigan/Indiana region I get a lot of argument against the Dakotas as Midwestern. "Those are the plains" I keep hearing. In North Dakota almost everyone felt they were in a Midwestern state. And many of them thought of Michigan as an eastern state. Many of my students in North Dakota distinguished and contrasted the Midwest from the Great Lakes while here in Michigan the Great Lakes are often used to define the Midwest.

The order of items in the questionnaire was as follows. It follows a rough path from the east to northwest then south.

North Dakota
South Dakota


  1. Haha I bet if you called Texas a Midwestern state they would take GREAT offense!

    Oh and until I moved up to the Chicago area (and even now) I always thought it was SOO far North! Now that I live up here I realize it really isn't, but it still seems like it for some reason!

  2. And I've heard many people claim that certain states (Minnesota Wisconsin Michigan) are too far north to be Midwestern.

    Some people take that "mid" part to mean that it's not just middle regarding east/west but also north/south. Some states are left out of the region because they're too far south as well.

    So the mid has to serve double duty. If it was a purely n/s modifier then the -western part would be unmitigated and the region would refer to Oregon norther California and maybe parts of Nevada.

    That is if we go by the geographic/descriptive use.

  3. I always considered Penn as part of the tri-state area (w/ NY and NJ), but all of my Penn friends are from the Eastern half of the state.

    I am one of those people who consider Minn, Wisc, and Mich as their own deal up North-- also, politically speaking, I don't associate them with the "mid-west" of Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Ohio, and (for me, but apparently not everyone) Kansas. Perhaps I take Thomas Frank too seriously.

  4. Isn't Pennsylvania the Keystone state because it links the Colonies?

    And you can count me as one of your students in North Dakota who defines IL, MI, WI, IN, and OH as Great Lakes States. I've only really heard the Great Plains appellation from those outside of the region.

    I'm curious what a poll would reveal about differences between the Heartland and the Midwest.

  5. So Daniel you're saying that those Great Lakes states are not part of the Midwest? So what are the Midwestern states in your opinion? Would you have added any to the list I provided?

  6. Hmm...in response to Daniel, I'm not sure what the Heartland is...I'm not sure I've ever heard any states referred to in that way...

  7. Yes, I'm saying the Great Lakes states aren't part of the Midwest. I probably have definite weaknesses when it comes to Illinois (where I lived), but then I'll make a cultural argument to exclude it from the others (jumping horses midstream). Though I was young when I lived in IL, I felt closer to the South when living in Southern IL and just closer to Chicago when living in the North.

    I wouldn't add any states to your list. I voted for ND, SD, NE, KS, IA, and MN. I can't remember if I included MO, but it doesn't feel like I did.

    My regions of the country: Northeast, Great Lakes, Midwest, Rocky Mountain, Northwest, California, Southwest, South--including the Deep South, and Florida.


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