Analysis: Illinois the most like U.S.

WASHINGTON — White, rural and homogeneous. New Hampshire and Iowa play big roles in choosing presidential candidates but don’t look much like the rest of the country.

A better bellwether might be Illinois. It’s the most average state, according to an Associated Press analysis of data from the Census Bureau.

Illinois is the fifth largest state, with a big city in Chicago, rolling countryside in the south and a lot of sprawling suburbs. And it has Peoria, which, it turns out, really is a barometer of U.S. preferences. Many companies continue to use the city in central Illinois as a test market, taking literally the adage about how things play there.

"Illinois has always been a mirror of America," said state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a Republican. "With all due respect to South Carolina, Iowa and New Hampshire, they are not reflective of the overall American population."

Each state was ranked on how closely it matched national levels on 21 demographic factors, including race, age, income, education, industrial mix, immigration and the share of people living in urban and rural areas. The rankings were then combined to determine the state that best mirrors the country as a whole.

Illinois was followed by Oregon, Michigan, Washington and Delaware.

Nevada ranked 33rd on the list, with its racial composition more rather than less diverse than the rest of America. Nevada had a smaller proportion of whites and blacks but more Hispanics and Asians than the country as a whole.

The Democratic National Committee last year chose Nevada to be part of the early presidential nominating process for 2008, putting Nevada caucuses after the Iowa caucuses but before the New Hampshire primary. Republicans recently followed suit and will also hold an early contest in Nevada.

Nevada Democratic Party spokeswoman Kirsten Searer said Nevada’s diversity would help balance out the influence of Iowa and New Hampshire to ensure a candidate is selected who can appeal to a wide spectrum of voters.

"I don’t know if you’ll find any state that matches up exactly, but we’re sure a lot more representative than Iowa and New Hampshire, and we’re certainly very representative of Western states, where Democrats have been making strides," she said.

"We believe that having candidates court voters in a more racially and ethnically diverse state will be a benefit to Democrats throughout the country," she added.

West Virginia was the least typical state — poorer, whiter, more rural — followed by Mississippi, New Hampshire, Vermont and Kentucky.

Iowa ranked 41st. South Carolina, which also has an early primary, ranked 24th.

America is becoming more diverse, with minorities topping 100 million for the first time in 2006, according to Census Bureau figures being released today. About one in three Americans was a minority last year, a slight increase.

In 2006, the nation was 67.6 percent white, non-Hispanic; 15 percent Hispanic; 13.4 percent black; 5 percent Asian; 1.5 percent American Indian or native Alaskan and 0.3 percent Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.

The percentages add up to more than 100 in part because some people identify with more than one race and Hispanics can be of any race.

Illinois’ racial composition matches the nation’s better than any other state. Education levels are similar, as is the mix of industry and the percentage of immigrants. Incomes in Illinois are a little higher and the state is more urban the rest of the nation. But the age of the population is very close to the country’s mix of minors, seniors and those 18 to 64.

Iowa and New Hampshire have played prominent roles in choosing presidential candidates for years.

Both states are more than 90 percent white, making them among the least diverse in the country. Nevertheless, officials in both states have defended their status and pledged to maintain it.

New Hampshire voters are well-informed and steeped in democracy, comfortable asking tough questions of town officials and presidential candidates alike, said Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party.

"Ask anyone who has been to the New Hampshire primary and they will tell you about the intensity of the questions," Buckley said. "You are going to have to answer questions about the war in Iraq and about the slaughter in Darfur."

Review-Journal writer Molly Ball contributed to this report.

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