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Another way to explain who we are: The 15 types of communities that make up America

Map courtesy Dante Chinni

On Friday, we brought you the story of America’s 11 nation-states, as told by Portland Press-Herald reporter and author Colin Woodard. Woodard is just one of the many demographers and political scientists who have tried to illustrate the regional commonalities that explain our evolving country — Kevin Phillips, Joel Garreau, David Hackett Fischer and others have come up with their own versions.

One of the most comprehensive takes dives deeper than the state level: Dante Chinni, the journalist and author of Patchwork Nation, has divided the country into 15 types of counties for the American Communities Project at American University, from the Big Cities to the African American South and the LDS Enclaves in the west. Here’s his map:

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And here’s how he defines each group:

African American South: Home to 16.7 million people, the 371 counties running from Virginia to Texas are more than 40 percent African American. The $35,561 median income is the poorest of the 15 county types.

Aging Farmlands: More than a quarter of the 576,000 people in the 161 counties clustered in the Dakotas south through the Great Plains are over 62 years old. They are overwhelmingly white, and overwhelmingly Republican; Mitt Romney won 68 percent of the vote here in 2012.

Big Cities: The 73.6 million people in the 46 largest counties in the country are some of the most diverse pockets of population in the country. More than a quarter are Hispanic, and nearly a fifth are African American. President Obama won 65 percent of the vote here in 2012.

College Towns: More than a third of the 17.9 million people in these 154 counties, clustered around college campuses outside big cities, have bachelor’s degrees or higher. They are less diverse than the nation as a whole, and a higher percentage are between 18 and 21 — college students — than in any other region.

Evangelical Hubs: 12.5 million people live in 373 counties mostly scattered through what Woodard called Greater Appalachia. They are 85 percent white, and just 15 percent of the population has a bachelor’s degree. Romney won 69 percent of the vote in an area where Democrats have a tough time making inroads.

Exurbs: The not-quite-suburban, not-quite-rural bedroom communities in 222 counties are home to 32 million quite wealthy people. The median household income is a healthy $63,000 a year, and they tend to remain more conservative than their suburban neighbors, Chinni says; Romney won the exurbs by 17 points.

Graying America: More of the 15.3 million residents in these 364 counties, scattered around the Mountain West and the northern border with Canada as far east as upper Maine, are over 62 than are under 18. Romney won 56 percent of the vote in these counties in 2012.

Hispanic Centers: Chinni’s name for what Woodard called El Norte, the heavily Hispanic 161 counties mostly in the Southwest, which 11.5 million people call home, are much younger than the national average. Republicans used to win these counties handily, but with the growing number of Hispanics in the voter pool, they are turning increasingly purple.

LDS Enclaves: The vast majority of the 3 million people living in 41 counties in and around Utah are white, and young. More than three in ten residents are under 18, and nine in ten are white. Romney performed better here than in any other type of county, hitting 74 percent of the vote.

Middle Suburbs: About 16.3 million people live around big cities in the Northeast and Midwest. They tend to be less wealthy and less well-educated than suburbs closer to the big cities. These regions swung narrowly from Obama in 2008 to Romney in 2012.

Military Posts: The concentration of troops and bases mean the 9.7 million people who live in these 89 counties are younger and more diverse than they might otherwise be. They are also more educated than the average county; Romney won by 14 points here in 2012.

Native American Lands: More than half the 695,000 people who live in 42 counties, mostly in the West, are Native Americans. They have the lowest percentage of whites, according to the Census Bureau, and their average household incomes are significantly lower than the national average.

Rural Middle America: The 21.5 million people in these 599 counties live everywhere from Upstate New York to Minnesota’s Iron Range. They are heavily white, they live in small towns, and they are not as reliant on agriculture as other rural counties.

Urban Suburbs: The 66.2 million people in 106 counties just outside most major cities are starting to look like their more urban brethren. Seventy percent are white, and Hispanics make up a growing percentage of the population base. They are the wealthiest type of community, and they’re increasingly liberal: President Obama won here by 16 points.

Working Class Country: About 8.5 million people live in 337 counties that are among the most white (94 percent) and the poorest in the country. Many of these counties are rural outposts in Appalachia, though they dot the Ozarks and parts of the Smoky Mountains, too.

The designations are useful in explaining election results. Last week, Chinni used his figures to demonstrate how Democrat Terry McAuliffe won the Virginia governor’s race by running up big margins in urban suburbs around Washington and Richmond, and in heavily African American communities in the southern part of the Commonwealth. Republican Ken Cuccinelli did best in the Working Class Country counties along the West Virginia border and in Rural Middle America, where he scored nearly two-thirds of the vote.

Cuccinelli’s positions on social issues, Chinni wrote, have become a liability in the urban suburbs in Northern Virginia, which bodes ill for Republicans.

Check out his work at the American Communities Project here.

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Related: Which of the 11 ‘nations’ of the United States do you live in?

GALLERY: 18 objects that define America


Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.

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