Primary Considerations

If the first presidential primary were held in the "most representative" state, which one would that be?


The presidential-primary season is now behind us, mostly, and the quadrennial hand-wringing has begun over the prominent roles played by the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. It's not surprising, of course, that the candidates who fared poorly in these early contests would suddenly realize that Iowa and New Hampshire are profoundly unrepresentative of America as a whole. Iowans on average are more literate than the typical American, and they get divorced far less frequently. New Hampshire is tiny, rural, white, fickle, and flinty. Sheesh! If only they'd known!

But it's not just the losing candidates who weigh in. No sooner is the traditional first tally reported from Dixville Notch than the press corps heads south from its long winter encampment with a case of seasonal affective disorder or post-electoral tristesse. The litany of complaint grows longer with every presidential cycle. The columnist William Safire almost a decade ago called the New Hampshire primary a "media-saturated joke"; the state's citizens, he went on, are "overexposed, over-polled, over-campaigned upon." The New York Times, arguing recently for the creation of a "more thoughtful process," noted that there is nothing "historically sacred" about Iowa's "icicle-festooned precinct scrums." Appearing last January on The Capital Gang, Kate O'Beirne, the Washington editor of National Review, remarked, "The Iowa caucuses measure something. They sure don't measure the national appeal of a candidate." The San Diego Union-Tribune, published in a mighty state that has played no serious role in the presidential nominating process in two generations, was scornful of Iowa and New Hampshire. "They are such small states," an editorial observed in January. "In fact, with 2.9 million residents last year, Iowa was no more populous than San Diego County. With 1.2 million residents, New Hampshire was no more populous than the city of San Diego." The former senator Slade Gorton, of Washington, has sonorously declared that "nonsensical traditions of presidential candidates posing for photographs in Iowa cornfields and eating doughnuts in New Hampshire diners are not a proper manner in which to select the leader of the free world"—a sentiment embraced by Senator Joseph Lieberman, of Connecticut, until he himself decided to compete in New Hampshire (and perhaps embraced by him once again, in the wake of his abysmal showing in that contest).

This year, a few days after the New Hampshire vote, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Terry McAuliffe, provided an opening for sharp criticism of the selection process when he put New Hampshire on notice, explaining that it had better vote Democratic in 2004 if it wanted to retain its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. The predictable cries of outrage from New Hampshire politicians and editorial writers were met by huzzahs from elected officials in Michigan and Pennsylvania, who pointed out that their states are considerably more reflective of America's diversity than the Granite State is.

The skepticism about Iowa and New Hampshire has its merits, no doubt, and when the national election is over, we'll hear about ideas for reforming the selection process. Someone will again propose a series of regional primaries. Someone will again suggest that the state with the highest voter turnout be allowed to hold the first primary next time. Maybe the honor of first-in-the-nation primary should henceforward be awarded alphabetically, starting with Alabama in 2008 and moving to Wyoming two centuries later. And so on.

But a central background question remains on the table. If Iowa and New Hampshire are unrepresentative of America (as obviously they are), then what is the most representative state? Michigan and Pennsylvania may be "more" representative than Iowa or New Hampshire, but are they utterly representative? If we had to select one state to stand for America in all its parts—the state you'd transplant to Mars to make sure our starter colony grew up just like the country we have here—which one would it be?

If you start simply with core demographic characteristics, the answer is Illinois. The United States is 75.1 percent white, 12.5 percent Hispanic, 12.3 percent African-American, 3.6 percent Asian, and 0.9 percent Native American. The respective figures for Illinois are 73.5, 12.3, 15.1, 3.4, and 0.2. But a number of other states, though not quite so close on every measure, can lay claim to "ballpark" status on diversity: Florida, Michigan, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Texas. And if you pick different data, different states emerge on top. When it comes to the urban-rural ratio, for instance, the U.S. average is 79 to 21. That's matched pretty closely by Texas and Pennsylvania. If you look at certain economic indices, Missouri emerges as fairly representative, with 12 percent of its work force in manufacturing (as compared with 11.7 nationwide) and 13.5 percent in labor unions (also 13.5 percent nationwide). Some 25 percent of all businesses in Missouri are owned by women; the figure for the country as a whole is 26 percent.

Some winnowing out is in order. Fortunately, most of these states have some disqualifying characteristic. Texas, by its own boastful admission, is not like the rest of the country; and indeed, it used to be independent. Florida, with no stable intrinsic character, suffers from dangerous weather and a skewed population structure; any reader of Carl Hiaasen understands that Florida is an outlier. Michigan's one major metropolis is in a state of inexorable decay. New Jersey consists essentially of suburbs, and as a media market is a dependency of Philadelphia or New York. Pennsylvania is surprisingly inert, economically and demographically. Illinois is just too flat—it lacks the highlander element that so often provides a kind of cultural ballast.

Which leaves Missouri, at the geographical heart of the continent, a state that straddled North and South during the Civil War and has straddled East and West since the days of Lewis and Clark. It's the state that gave us Harry Truman and John Ashcroft, Dick Gregory and Rush Limbaugh, Josephine Baker and Burt Bacharach. The population of an "average" American state (total U.S. population divided by fifty) would be about 5.7 million; Missouri's is 5.6 million. The average state of the Union has 10.7 electoral votes; Missouri has eleven. The average state is 74,000 square miles; Missouri is 70,000. In the continental United States the average state with a coast has some 400 miles of coastline; if you count the Mississippi River (which is, after all, managed by the U.S. Coast Guard), Missouri has about the same. The people of Missouri have a distinctive manner of speech, but it's not the easily caricatured speech of Boston or New York or southern California or the South, or the affectless tones of the hyper-educated—it's closer to what foreigners think of as an "American" accent.

Spend some time crunching the numbers on Missouri, and here are some of the things you'll find:

  Missouri U.S. avg.
Mobile homes as % of housing 8.2 7.6
% population under age 18 25.5 25.7
% high school graduates 81.3 80.4
% over 24 with 4 yrs. college 26.7 26.7
Cesarean births (per 100) 22.1 22.0
Infant-mortality rate
(per 1,000 live births)
7.2 6.9
% low-birth-weight babies 7.6 7.6
% in same house five years 53.6 54.1
% below poverty line 11.7 12.4
Retail sales per capita $9,482 $9,190
Persons per square mile 81.2 79.6
Travel time to work (min.) 23.8 25.5
% children with Internet access 52.0 48.0
% children with no home phone 3.0 3.0
Hypothermia-related deaths
(per 100,000)
0.2 0.3
Federal aid to state and
local government (per capita)
$1,258 $1,233

That looks like a match to me. It may be worth noting that for more than a century in presidential contests Missouri has gone the way of the winning candidate more than any other state. Since 1900 it has voted "wrong" only once, in 1956. The Almanac of American Politics offers an observation that strikes me as a clincher: "An imaginary, flat map of the United States population, if everyone weighed the same, would balance near Edgar Springs in Phelps County, Missouri."

Edgar Springs: population 189. The town had better brace itself—it could be the next Dixville Notch.

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Says Cullen Murphy, "At The Atlantic we try to provide a considered look at all aspects of our national life; to write, as well, about matters that are not strictly American; to emphasize the big story that lurks, untold, behind the smaller ones that do get told; and to share the conclusions of our writers with people who count."

Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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