Swing Demography in the Swing States

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Mr. Winslow is the director of social research and Mr. Exter is the chief demographer at MapInfo Corp. in Troy, NY. Mr. Exter was a former research director at American Demographics. They performed the following exclusive analysis for American Demographics of the swing states in the 2004 presidential election, focusing on Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio. These states are critical because of their size - as large population states, they bring many Electoral College votes. Geographically and culturally, they can be seen as a series of points that help to triangulate the new face of the American culture. From a demographic perspective, containing several swing populations, they are interesting as well. The following provides analysis on Florida voters and Stark County, Ohio, which shares similar demographic characteristics as other counties in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

As the polling takes place across America today, political experts expect a set of "swing states" to define the line between victory and defeat for Bush and Kerry. MapInfo's research indicates that the vote may actually come down not to voters in these states as a whole, but to voters in a few small groups or demographic clusters within these key states. Specifically, the vote will be heavily influenced by, and our focus will be, the opinions of a handful of demographic groups representing both 'old' America and 'new' America. Groups from a modern, diverse state, like Florida, and groups from older towns in Pennsylvania and Ohio - an older part of the country and an area that many once considered the ethnic and industrial heart of America, but which is no longer.

New America

First off, there is Florida. The population is heavily Hispanic, highly mobile, and culturally diverse. That said, characterizing Florida is nearly impossible. What is clear is that the population is diverse -- nearly 50 percent of the population was born outside the state. With so many having so recently relocated, Florida is a modern melting pot. A divide in political opinion is not unexpected.

  • Nearly 1 in 5 residents define themselves as Hispanic.
  • 50 percent of the population was born outside the state -- a modern melting pot.
  • More likely than average to share a home with non-relative householders and unmarried partners.
  • More likely than average to live in non-family households, and less likely to live in families characterized as married couples with children.

Old America

Ohio and Pennsylvania share the same set of basic demographic characteristics. Using the neighborhood classification system designed by MapInfo, we profiled two counties from Ohio and Pennsylvania. With MapInfo software and data, we were able to create a PSYTE Advantage report to help us understand the demographic groups that characterize the area.

In 2000, Stark County, Ohio was the 3rd largest county with a visibly narrow split between Bush and Gore. The 2 percent difference in opinion between 150K + voters of the same general area is too fascinating to ignore. Within Stark County there are 6 major neighborhood types with a population of over 10,000 households. They are:

Rust Belt Blues

Demographic Characteristics

  • Older population living in older homes.
  • Typically employed in manufacturing and production.
  • Household income that ranks 25 percent below the US average.

Voting Tendencies

  • They were the small city workers that once voted exclusively Democratic but may be torn in their loyalties today.
  • With unemployment higher over the last 5 years than any time in the last 10 years, the economy is a strong concern.
  • However the economy is the most important issue for 27 percent of Ohio voters. It is likely that large blocks of the Rust Belt workers will not vote on that issue alone.

Quiet Streets

Demographic Characteristics

  • Married couple families with children present.
  • Educational attainment is greater, and a greater percentage of residents are likely to have white-collar jobs.
  • Although nearly 50 percent are still employed in manufacturing.

Voting Tendencies

  • The economy and homeland security hit very close to home.
  • The married females in this cluster with school-age children will vote primarily on issues related to terrorism and crime.
  • Bush is the likely choice. However, in these homes, with younger, educated parents, Republican stance on cultural issues may not be as appealing.

Empty Nest East

Demographic Characteristics

  • Married couples with children out of the house.
  • College educated, homeowners, in some cases with dual incomes make them slightly wealthier than the US average.
  • For every few of these householders still earning an income, there is at least one household where the primary earner has retired.

Voting Tendencies

  • Their homes may be their most significant financial asset, and as the economy around them slows down, and home values stumble, they may worry about their cash flow.
  • The promise of Medicare and Social Security payments is important to them.
  • Given the age of these neighborhoods, a vote for Bush is not guaranteed. Each hint Kerry drops about the imperiled future of the Social Security fund under the watch of a Republican administration pushes at least a few of these voters further from Bush.

A search of Pennsylvania leads us to a number of counties that were close in the 2000 election. Lackawanna and Luzerne Counties may represent that middle ground best. The three demographic groups most prevalent in Lackawanna/Luzerne Counties are Family Acres, Rust Belt Blues, and Country Roads. The top 5 clusters by households are listed in the table below.

In the major population areas of these counties the predominant clusters are Rust Belt Blues (23,500 households), Village Americana (16,400), and Senior Circles (8,200).

Village Americana

Demographic Characteristics

  • Median household income is nearly 50 percent lower than the national average.
  • Families tend to be 'broken' -- there is a much higher incidence of divorce or separation. Those spouses that have not been divorced or separated are likely to have been widowed.
  • Perhaps because the population skews toward retirement age, the population is 50 percent more likely to report its marital status as widowed.
  • For every two owner-occupied homes, there is one rented -- usually a two-unit rental or a mobile home.
  • While 15 percent of the population does have a bachelor's degree, that is 50 percent less than the national average, and 18 percent of the population has no high school diploma.

Voting Tendencies

  • In these areas economic dissatisfaction may be too intense for any single party to be blamed. However, the blame will be felt and it will be bitter.
  • Another feeling as intense as economic dissatisfaction will be patriotic pride. The residents of these towns are likely to support the military, feverishly.
  • Kerry's ability to convince the voters in these towns that he can be tough against Iraq and terrorism will be a critical issue -- one he is not likely to win.

In the end, the Swing States will be won by victories in swing pockets of demographics. We know who they are, we know what is important to them and we can paint a vivid picture of their lives.

The instinct when writing a profile like this is to make predictions. The only prediction here is the unpredictable. What we are able to say is that certain, swing demographic groups will impact the election as a result of their influence in the battleground states. They represent change -- change for the better and for the worse. America is in the midst of a cultural transition, and long-held opinions and values are changing, swinging back and forth.

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