Pocket worthyStories to fuel your mind

What State Best Represents America?

We take a stab at identifying the most normal state in the nation and discover that, by at least one measure, it’s the state you’d least expect.

The Washington Post

Read when you’ve got time to spare.

double-crested cormorant

A double-crested cormorant in the Everglades National Park in Homestead, Fla., on Jan. 30, 2023. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

What are the most representative — dare we say, most American — states in the nation? And what does that even mean?

Our friend Lenny Bronner, The Washington Post’s tousle-haired political-stats wunderkind, needed an answer. You may recognize Lenny from his vote-night telecast appearances, or maybe from what his LinkedIn page calls the “Stanford Austria Club — Kaffeehauskulturverein.” Regardless, for his election models, Lenny needed to know how well results in one state could predict those in another.

So he churned through Census variables, creating indexes of how similar U.S. states are to one another — whereupon we realized that his work would be perfect for a less important purpose: finding the most typical and most unusual places in America.

Ever the Austrian, Lenny suggested a careful procession through the data. We started with the variable that, other than party identification, best predicts Americans’ votes. We’ll pause here to give you a chance to guess the answer. But — spoiler alert — it’s race.

So which state most closely mirrors the nation as a whole in terms of racial makeup? By mixing metropolis with corn palace, Illinois reigns as the most demographically “normal” state in America.

This chart shows it's super tough to tell the U.S. and Illinois apart

Each race, as a share of state, national or D.C. population

Screenshot 2024-05-13 at 6.42.39 PM.png

 Source: Census Bureau (2018-2022 American Community Survey) and U.S. Religion Census (2020)  (Department of Data/The Washington Post)

Connecticut and New York also closely reflect the United States; Alaska and Hawaii do not. States in the southern half of the country, with their larger Black populations, don’t do nearly as well on this metric. Same with the Whiter states in the northern Plains and northern New England.

The states most similar to the U.S. in terms of race

Based on the shares of the population who are Hispanic, Black, Asian, Native American and White

Screenshot 2024-05-13 at 6.44.23 PM.png

 Source: Census Bureau (2018-2022 American Community Survey)  (Department of Data/The Washington Post)

Our next stop on Lenny’s guided tour through the nation’s most politically influential differences is, of course, religion. It predicts better than any other nonpolitical variable Lenny has tested whether a member of America’s politically powerful White majority will break left or right.

Law and custom prevent the Census Bureau from collecting data on religious beliefs, so we turned to the U.S. Religion Census, conducted every decade since 1990 by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies.

Arizona pops out as the most representative state by this measure, balancing mainline Catholics and other Christians with Muslims, Jews, Hindus and the religiously unaffiliated. The other top states are an unorthodox mix of Arizona’s retirement-belt peers such as Florida and California as well as Rust Belt states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio. Religiously homogeneous places such as Utah and Alabama bring up the rear.

The states most similar to the U.S. in terms of religion

Based on the shares of the population who are Catholic, non-Catholic Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu and religiously unaffiliated

Screenshot 2024-05-13 at 6.46.51 PM.png

Note: Religious unaffiliation was roughly estimated by subtracting religious adherents from the total population number.  Source: 2020 U.S. Religion Census (Department of Data/The Washington Post)

Next we moved to income, looking for places with the most representative mix of non-earners and earners in three different income tiers, as well as median household income. Illinois comes out on top again, with the other close matches found in Sun Belt states such as Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.

The states most similar to the U.S. in terms of income

Based on median income, as well as the shares of the population with no income, low income, middle income and high income

Screenshot 2024-05-13 at 6.48.49 PM.png

 Source: Census Bureau (2018-2022 American Community Survey) (Department of Data/The Washington Post)

As med school graduates may have noticed, education helps determine income. So education variables produced similar results, with Georgia showing the optimal mix of high school dropouts and advanced-degree holders. Illinois and Rhode Island also do well; highly educated Vermont and less highly educated West Virginia do not.

The states most similar to the U.S. in terms of education

Based on how the adult (25+) population is divided between those with no high school diploma, only a diploma, some college, a bachelor's degree or an advanced degree

Screenshot 2024-05-13 at 6.50.19 PM.png

 Source: Census Bureau (2018-2022 American Community Survey) (Department of Data/The Washington Post)

In related news, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Texas have the right mix of blue-collar, white-collar and service jobs, as well as the most representative working-age adult employment rates. States that lean on just one sector, such as Nevada’s service industry or West Virginia’s extraction industries, don’t do as well.

The states most similar to the U.S. in terms of work

Based on the mix of white-collar jobs, blue-collar jobs, service-sector jobs and the employment rate

Screenshot 2024-05-13 at 7.33.08 PM.png

 Source: Census Bureau (2018-2022 American Community Survey)
(Department of Data / The Washington Post) 

We felt we should also consider a hobo stew of “social issues.” That could mean just about anything, from age to population density, or the number of veterans, or the percentage of residents in same-sex relationships. This metric loves middle America, by which we mean the states trapped between the Mississippi River and the Appalachian Mountains. Kentucky, Minnesota and Indiana lead the pack.

The states most similar to the U.S. in terms of social issues

Based on median age, veteran population, population density and share of cohabiting couples in same-sex relationships

Screenshot 2024-05-13 at 7.36.10 PM.png

 Source: Census Bureau (2018-2022 American Community Survey)
(Department of Data /The Washington Post)

When you whip together these 30-ish variables, condensed into six similarity indexes, you find the single-most “normal” U.S. state is … Florida? The nation’s second-largest peninsula and single-largest late-night punching bag scores well on religion, education, income and even race.

But Florida is literally built differently than the rest of the country, said Albert Hine, author of “Geologic History of Florida.” A fragment of Africa that ran off with North America as supercontinents split, Florida spent much of its life submerged, biding its time and accumulating layer after layer of the skeletons of ancient sea life. As the resulting limestone collected quartz sand eroded off the Appalachians, a future swing state emerged from the shallow seas.

Could this geologic outlier be demographically representative?

Kind of. It tops the index if we consider all the variables equally relevant, which doesn’t seem fair. If we weigh them based on their value in Lenny’s models — race first, religion second and so on, according to our orderly waltz above — Illinois elbows Florida out of the top spot. Pennsylvania takes third place either way.

The most average, representative American states

The states that most closely resemble the U.S. average, based on a similarity index built from almost 30 variables, weighted by those (other than party affiliation) that best predict how individuals will vote in elections

Screenshot 2024-05-13 at 7.38.28 PM.png

 Source: Census Bureau (2018-2022 American Community Survey) and U.S. Religion Census (2020) (Department of Data/The Washington Post)

So there you have it. Illinois is the most American, or at least the most normal, state in the United States. We assume the 53,000 residents of Normal, Ill., agree, but the city politely declined to speak with us, presumably because they’re super duper tired of dorky columnists making fun of their name.

Since at least 2009, the year for which we have the earliest comparable data, the nation has converged more with Connecticut (it rose from 13th to fourth) and diverged from Vermont (it fell from 22nd to 36th). But Illinois and Florida have constantly been at the top.

Lenny’s method also compares every state to all 50 of its peers, plus D.C. The two most similar states are Ohio and Missouri. Indiana and Missouri are also very close, as are Indiana and Ohio. That three-state resemblance triangle is separated geographically by only one state: ultra-normal Illinois.

Your state's closest match

Each state's closest matches, based on similarity index built from almost 30 variables, weighted by those (other than party affiliation) that best predict how individuals will vote in elections

Screenshot 2024-05-13 at 7.41.40 PM.png

 Source: Census Bureau (2018-2022 American Community Survey) and U.S. Religion Census (2020)  (Department of Data/The Washington Post)

Almost without regard to who you compare them to, Hawaii, Utah and Alaska dangle off the chart as outliers. The reasons for Hawaii and Alaska are obvious — they didn’t gain statehood until 1959, and thus sidestepped centuries of assimilation.

Utah’s another classic outlier, thanks indirectly to the vigilantes and politicians who forced the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to leave Nauvoo, Ill., then almost as big as Chicago, and high-tail it to the Beehive State in 1846. As a result, Utah today is the youngest state by age, and it has the most religious adherents, pound for pound.

Alaska, an uber peninsula so huge and distant that it breaks our maps if we try to portray it accurately, should probably be crowned most unusual. It boasts the nation’s largest proportion of veterans, non-earners and musk oxen. Over most of its land area it still retains a majority-Native American population.

The real “most unique” winner is D.C. But as its under-review “We Demand Statehoodlicense plates may remind you, D.C. is not technically a state.

The District covers less land than 100 percent of states and, for that matter, 98 percent of counties. It’s also smaller than all but two states in population. It more closely resembles a major urban core than it does a typical state, and by typical state we obviously mean Illinois.

D.C.’s real peers might be counties — about 100 of them have more people than the nation’s capital, which has roughly the same population as Tulsa County, Okla. And when we do the same analysis for counties, we find D.C. isn’t even close to the most aberrant. Instead, Oglala Lakota County, S.D., and Kusilvak Census Area in Alaska stand out.

The most typical, and most unusual, counties in America

A similarity index built on almost 30 different variables, weighted by those (other than party affiliation) that best predict how individuals will vote in elections

Screenshot 2024-05-13 at 7.44.16 PM.png

 Source: Census Bureau (2017-2021 American Community Survey) and U.S. Religion Census (2020)  (Department of Data/The Washington Post)

This will raise red flags among our nerdiest readers, for reasons almost too obscure to mention. This duo became infamous among stat schleppers in 2015 when they changed their names and official county identification codes — they used to be Shannon County and Wade Hampton Census Area, respectively — breaking a zillion time series and databases in the process. When those two counties show up as outliers, it’s because you didn’t account for the name changes.

But we’ve checked this a few ways, and they’re legitimately distinct! They boast the two largest Native populations in America, relative to their size. In fact, that’s kind of why they changed their names in the first place.

Oglala Lakota County, part of the sprawling Pine Ridge reservation in the badlands of South Dakota, may be best known as the place where the U.S. cavalry shot about 300 men, women and children at Wounded Knee. People living there today, most of them Oglala Lakota, were evidently not thrilled to be named after Dakota Territory Chief Justice Peter Shannon, a White man who had a role in land deals with the tribe. A 2014 referendum to ditch his name got more than 80 percent of the vote.

state rep america 2.jpg

Adam Lays Hard, 14, astride Tony, and Sam Bull Bear, 18, on Mister Bad Ass, participate in a relay on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota in 2014. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

The largely Yupik people of Kusilvak, many of whom dwell on the lowlands created by silt dropped by the Yukon before it hits the Bering Strait, likewise saw no reason to honor Wade Hampton. The Confederate general and major owner of enslaved Africans had nothing to do with the state of Alaska — except that he had a son-in-law who was in the right place when names were being handed out. The Census Area (Alaska doesn’t have counties) instead adopted the name of the nearby Kusilvak Mountains.

The most representative county, on the other hand, threw up zero technical warning signs. It’s Sedgwick County, home of Wichita, the major city closest to the geographic center of the contiguous United States. It squats squarely on the 100th meridian, the less-precise-than-it-sounds line that splits the verdant East from the arid West, in a state hotly contested by Northern abolitionists and Southern enslavers. It has spent its entire existence in the literal middle of everything, so of course it’s the most averagely American county.

If you broaden the analysis to entire metro areas, the statistical area containing both Kansas Cities and their suburbs wins, followed by Indianapolis and Cincinnati. By that same measure, the most standout metros are El Centro, Calif., and McAllen, Tex. — both sprawling cities amid the dusty, irrigated farmland along the Mexican border.

The most distinctive places in the country tend to be rendered that way by the same force: They have deep connections to a culture that predates the United States and its British forebears, be it the Native American nations around the Pine Ridge reservation or the Spanish empire in the Rio Grande Valley.

Generations of marginalization and modernization later, their legacy shines through the data.

Andrew Van Dam writes the Department of Data column each week for The Washington Post. He has covered economics and wrangled data and graphics for The Post and the Wall Street Journal.

How was it? Save stories you love and never lose them.

Logo for The Washington Post

This post originally appeared on The Washington Post and was published May 10, 2024. This article is republished here with permission.

Read The Washington Post’s Daily Briefing

Get The Post Most