People have long been critical of the crucial role Iowa and New Hampshire play in winnowing the presidential field. They’re small, homogenous, mostly rural states, so there’s a concern that, as gatekeepers, they push American politics in an unrepresentative direction. (It was unusual, for instance, that Ted Cruz won without supporting ethanol subsidies.)
NPR just did a good piece on this, and it got the authors to thinking: what is the most representative state in America? The winner is not a surprise—Illinois. The Washington Post’s Phillip Bump had the same finding last year.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, at least, if we ran politics, or at least the primary part of it, like a business. If you had a weird childhood like me and listened to a ton of old radio programs, you’d be familiar with marketers’ fascination with Peoria and how things might play there. As CNN reports:
[William] Safire’s claim brought a rebuttal letter to the Times from David H. Remer, of Newport, Calif., who recalled hearing the question “Will it play in Peoria” decades earlier on the Jack Benny and Fibber McGee and Molly radio programs. “When I asked about the origin of this expression, my grandmother explained that Peoria was known on the vaudeville circuit as one of the toughest towns in which to get a laugh, and consequently, if a new act or comic skit were likely to ‘play in Peoria’ it would play, or be successful, anywhere,” Remer wrote.
Peoria likewise was a popular test market; if a new product would “play in Peoria,” it could be sold successfully to the rest of the nation.
(You should listen to those two radio programs, by the way. They’re awesome.)
It hasn’t just been Peoria. In the 1990s, marketers actually worried that Peoria test consumers had become “jaded and overexposed,” but Illinois still had two of the top ten most-representative cities. When the USDA was testing out what would be come the atomic-age miracle of white bread, it staked out another Illinois city:
In the early ’50s, all the whiz kids of market research flocked to Rockford. An industrial center built by European immigrants, daring inventors, and strong labor unions, the city was the stuff of middle-class dreams. Although its economy was far more industrial than the national average, it suited America’s self-image to think of it as the country’s most “typical” city, and sociologists obliged with the label. In 1949, Life magazine declared that Rockford was “as nearly typical of the U.S. as any city can be.” This was a place where prototypical Americans could be viewed in their natural habitat.
Westward the course of empire takes its way; here’s The New York Times reporting on cereal marketing in 1982:
Here in the Middle West, where traditionally everyone goes to find the average American and ask what he or she likes, new-product testing takes its place alongside barn raising and Tupperware parties as a way to be socially and economically productive.
Across the state in Moline, one of the Quad Cities that package goods companies adore, Mary Beth Murphy is a tester. Mrs. Murphy, president of the Mother’s Club at the Seton Catholic School, says the exercise ‘’is a lot of fun, and an easy way to make some money if you can get 200 people to help you out.'’
But would it work for politics? Historically it has. During the 1980s one pollster called Illinois "the best bellwether state in America. It is a state that has it all: north, south, urban, rural, black, white, Hispanic. What usually plays well nationally plays pretty well in Illinois.” The numbers bore that out, and since 1990 only Ohio and Nevada have correctly picked the winning president more often than Illinois.
In this 2011 essay, political analyst Kyle Kondik predicted that “Illinois, trending blue, and Missouri, trending red, are probably past their best days as bellwether states.” But that was in 2011, and now we have ourselves a Republican governor. And not just that, but a divided and acrimonious government struggling to pass legislation, get out of debt, and keep a fraying safety net from collapsing. You can’t get more representative of America than that.