Boone, Iowa. Homestead, Fla. Denmark, S.C.

What do these places have in common? They were all mentioned by 2020 Democratic candidates during recent debates, along with various other cities and states across the country and around the globe. Candidates appear to strategically reference geographic places for reasons ranging from getting particular voters’ attention to demonstrating knowledge of foreign policy.


We looked at how the 10 candidates who qualified for November’s debate used place names in the past five debates.

They want to show they’re the right candidate for key battlegrounds.

One way candidates use geography to their advantage is to declare their support for voters in battleground states, whether farmers in Iowa or industrial workers in Ohio. To determine which states candidates call out the most for the purpose of getting voters’ attention, we excluded mentions where the candidate was simply giving a shout-out to the place hosting the debate (Florida, Michigan, Texas, Ohio, Georgia) as well as states mentioned by candidates referring to their personal background. (We’ll show you those in the next section.)

States in the Midwest, particularly Iowa, Wisconsin and Michigan, are brought up the most, as is the Midwest as a whole. Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) frequently mentions being from the Midwest, and that she can “win in the Midwest.” Iowa holds the first nominating contest, and Wisconsin and Michigan are two states Democrats probably will need to win the presidency.

How often the candidates

strategically mentioned each place

Never

At least once

Five or more times

Wisc.

Mich.

Iowa

“I can win in states like Wisconsin

and Michigan

and Iowa.”

KLOBUCHAR

“I was in McAllen,

Texas, and I just

hope everyone

remembers what

this looks like.”

WARREN

How often the candidates

strategically mentioned each place

Five or more times

Never

At least once

Wisc.

Mich.

Iowa

Penn.

Calif.

N.C.

Tex.

Fla.

“I can win in states like Wisconsin

and Michigan

and Iowa.”

KLOBUCHAR

“I was in McAllen,

Texas, and I just

hope everyone

remembers what

this looks like.”

WARREN

How often the candidates strategically mentioned each place

Five or more times

Never

At least once

Wisconsin

N.H.

Conn.

Iowa

Penn.

Ohio

Calif.

Md.

Va.

Ky.

N.C.

S.C.

Ga.

Ala.

Tex.

La.

Fla.

“I can win in

states like

Wisconsin

and Michigan

and Iowa.”

BIDEN

YANG

“I met with

a farmer

in Iowa...”

“...be able to go

into states like

Georgia and North

Carolina and other

places and get a

Senate majority.”

KLOBUCHAR

“I was in McAllen, Texas,

and I just hope everyone

remembers what this looks like.”

WARREN

How often the candidates strategically mentioned each place

Five or more times

Never

At least once

Wisconsin

N.H.

Conn.

Iowa

Penn.

Ohio

Calif.

Md.

Va.

Ky.

N.C.

S.C.

Ga.

Ala.

Tex.

La.

Fla.

“I can win in

states like

Wisconsin

and Michigan

and Iowa.”

“I met with

a farmer

in Iowa...”

BIDEN

YANG

“...be able to go into

states like Georgia

and North Carolina

and other places and

get a Senate majority.”

KLOBUCHAR

“I was in McAllen, Texas,

and I just hope everyone

remembers what this looks like.”

WARREN

How often the candidates strategically mentioned each place

Five or more times

Never

At least once

“I can win in states like Wisconsin

and Michigan

and Iowa.”

KLOBUCHAR

YANG

“I met with a

farmer in Iowa...”

N.H.

Wisconsin

Conn.

Iowa

Penn.

Ohio

Calif.

Md.

Va.

Ky.

“...be able to go into

states like Georgia

and North Carolina

and other places and

get a Senate majority.”

N.C.

S.C.

“I was in McAllen,

Texas, and I just

hope everyone

remembers what

this looks like.”

Ga.

Ala.

Tex.

La.

Fla.

BIDEN

WARREN

Iowa is by far the most-referenced state, with at least a dozen mentions. But sometimes candidates choose to emphasize places outside of the Midwest.

Klobuchar and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) have mentioned Alabama in reference to laws that could threaten Roe vs. Wade. While he didn’t make the November debate, former housing and urban development secretary Julián Castro has brought up visiting with citizens of Puerto Rico.

But many states across the country get no love at all. All Western states except California are left out of the conversation, including Nevada, which is both a key early contest and a potential general election battleground. Many Northeastern states have never been mentioned, and many states in the South have been referenced only once.

They want to tell their personal story.

You know that friend who always says, “Well, when I lived in ...”? Some of the candidates do that, too. Take Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), and Booker. In multiple debates, all three referenced a particular place they lived, presumably to make a point about their experience.

Warren references growing up in Oklahoma, a nod to her rural upbringing, and Booker reminisces on moving to inner-city Newark, where he stills lives. Harris reminds us all that she was attorney general of California and that “justice is on the ballot.”

“I was born and raised

in Oklahoma.

“You know, I grew

up in Oklahoma.”

WARREN

“... I moved into the

inner city of Newark ...”

“... I was a law student

and moved to inner city

Newark, New Jersey ...”

BOOKER

“... when I was attorney

general of California ...”

“... I became the first

woman attorney general

of California ...”

HARRIS

“I was born and raised

in Oklahoma.

“You know, I grew

up in Oklahoma.”

WARREN

“... I moved into the

inner city of Newark ...”

“... I was a law student

and moved to inner city

Newark, New Jersey ...”

BOOKER

“... when I was attorney

general of California ...”

“... I became the first

woman attorney general

of California ...”

HARRIS

WARREN

BOOKER

HARRIS

“... when I was attorney

general of California ...”

“... I moved into the

inner city of Newark ...”

“I was born and raised

in Oklahoma.

“You know, I grew

up in Oklahoma.”

“... I was a law student

and moved to inner city

Newark, New Jersey ...”

“... I became the first

woman attorney general

of California ...”

WARREN

BOOKER

HARRIS

“... when I was attorney

general of California ...”

“... I moved into the

inner city of Newark ...”

“I was born and raised

in Oklahoma.

“You know, I grew

up in Oklahoma.”

“... I was a law student

and moved to inner city

Newark, New Jersey ...”

“... I became the first

woman attorney general

of California ...”

HARRIS

WARREN

BOOKER

“... when I was attorney

general of California ...”

“I was born and raised

in Oklahoma.

“... I moved into the

inner city of Newark ...”

“You know, I grew

up in Oklahoma.”

“... I was a law student

and moved to inner city

Newark, New Jersey ...”

“... I became the first

woman attorney general

of California ...”

Of course, candidates only bring up where they’ve lived when it’s politically opportune. Warren has lived in Massachusetts, and Booker lived in California while attending university at Stanford.

Harris has resided in California for most of her life, which is reflected in her repeated references to California and her few references to any other states. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard frequently references her home state of Hawaii.

They want to show off their foreign policy experience.

Some candidates use another different strategy, highlighting their international experience and knowledge. Gabbard, Booker, Klobuchar and former vice president Joe Biden lead in naming countries when discussing foreign policy and national security.

Russia

10

5

“... we must start

negotiating back with

Russia, which has

been a horrible player

on the international

scene ...”

1

Number of

mentions

KLOBUCHAR

China

“... we make clear to

China, which I have

done personally with --

with the president of

China, and that is we're

going to move up our

defenses ...”

BIDEN

GABBARD

Afghanistan

“We are no better

off in Afghanistan

today than we were

when this war began

... I am ready to do

that job when I walk

into the Oval Office.”

Russia

10

5

“... we must start

negotiating back with

Russia, which has

been a horrible player

on the international

scene ...”

1

Number of

mentions

KLOBUCHAR

“... we make clear to

China, which I have

done personally with --

with the president of

China, and that is we're

going to move up our

defenses ...”

China

BIDEN

Afghanistan

“We are no better off

in Afghanistan today

than we were when this

war began ... I am ready

to do that job when I walk

into the Oval Office.”

GABBARD

10

Russia

5

“... we must start

negotiating back with

Russia, which has

been a horrible player

on the international

scene...”

1

Number of

mentions

KLOBUCHAR

“... this nation is

pulling away from

critical allies we

would need to show

strength against

China.”

BIDEN

China

“... we make clear to

China, which I have

done personally with --

with the president of

China, and that is we're

going to move up our

defenses ...”

BOOKER

BIDEN

Afghanistan

“We are no better

off in Afghanistan

today than we were

when this war began

... I am ready to do

that job when I walk

into the Oval Office.”

“I also think we

should not have

combat troops in

Afghanistan. It's

long overdue. It

should end.”

GABBARD

10

5

Russia

“... we must start

negotiating back with

Russia, which has

been a horrible player

on the international

scene ...”

1

Number of

mentions

KLOBUCHAR

BIDEN

“... this nation is pulling

away from critical allies

we would need to show

strength against China.”

China

“... we make clear to

China, which I have

done personally with --

with the president of

China, and that is we're

going to move up our

defenses ...”

BOOKER

BIDEN

Afghanistan

“We are no better

off in Afghanistan

today than we were

when this war began

... I am ready to do

that job when I walk

into the Oval Office.”

“I also think we should

not have combat troops

in Afghanistan. It's long

overdue. It should end.”

GABBARD

BIDEN

“... this nation is pulling

away from critical allies

we would need to show

strength against China.”

China

“... we make clear to

China, which I have

done personally with --

with the president of

China, and that is we're

going to move up our

defenses ...”

BOOKER

Russia

“When we look at

international agreements,

we must start negotiating

back with Russia, which

has been a horrible player

on the international scene ...”

KLOBUCHAR

BIDEN

Afghanistan

“We are no better

off in Afghanistan

today than we were

when this war began

... I am ready to do

that job when I walk

into the Oval Office.”

“I also think we should

not have combat troops

in Afghanistan. It's long

overdue. It should end.”

GABBARD

Biden and Booker mentioned China the most, both in reference to foreign policy and national security. Gabbard led in references to Afghanistan, a reflection of her military service with the Hawaii Army National Guard. And Klobuchar, who has mentioned more than 20 places in the United States, heavily mentioned Russia, which made it the most-referenced country by one candidate.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) invoked Canada for a completely different reason: as an example of a health-care and prescription system the United States should mirror.

“... we pay 10 times

more for prescription

drugs as do the

people of Canada ...”

“I took 15 people

with diabetes from

Detroit a few miles

into Canada ...”

SANDERS

“... we pay 10 times more

for prescription drugs as

do the people of Canada ...”

“I took 15 people with

diabetes from Detroit

a few miles into Canada ...”

SANDERS

“... we pay 10 times more

for prescription drugs as

do the people of Canada ...”

“I took 15 people with

diabetes from Detroit

a few miles into Canada ...”

SANDERS

While some of these geographic references may seem random, they appear to be done with purpose and meaning, whether singling out the farmers of the Midwest (almost every candidate) or naming Papua New Guinea as the only country with a child-care system as flawed as that of the United States (Yang). We’ll see what other places make the list in December.

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About this story

Only the 10 candidates who participated in the November debate were included in this analysis. Places were selected from debate transcripts, and place names said by moderators were excluded from the analysis.

The battleground map includes states where the state was mentioned or a city within that state was mentioned. States mentioned as shout-outs to a particular debate’s crowd were excluded. States mentioned in reference to where candidates have lived or worked were excluded from the map count.