Too white? Iowa is 91% white, but does that mean it shouldn't vote first?

Too white: Iowa, which plays a big role in the presidential nominating process, is not racially representative of the US, an NBC correspondent recently noted. But in other ways, analysts say, Iowa reflects the national average.

Charlie Neibergall/AP
Too white? Iowa, which plays a big role in the presidential nominating process, is not racially representative of the US, a CNN correspondent recently noted. In this photo, Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a caucus day rally at the Temple for Performing Arts, Tuesday, in Des Moines, Iowa.

Is Iowa too white to be politically representative of the United States as a whole? That question arises because NBC correspondent Andrea Mitchell on Sunday implied that it was.

While interviewing GOP strategist Mike Murphy, Ms. Mitchell made this comment: “The rap on Iowa – it doesn’t represent the rest of the country. [It’s] too white, too evangelical, too rural.”

Conservative critics have leaped on Mitchell for injecting her opinions into the discussion. To be fair, however, she was clearly citing “critics” who say such things – and they do. In fact, she was almost directly quoting from a New York Times article of Dec. 17, which made much the same point while discussing Iowa’s relative economic stability.

“As the first state to take part in the Republican nominating contest, Iowa has long been criticized as too much of an outlier to be permanently endowed such an outsize influence in shaping the presidential field,” wrote the Times’ A.G. Sulzberger. “Too small, critics say. Too rural. Too white.”

It is the “white” part of this that may be raising the most hackles among conservatives. They point out that in 2008 then-candidate Barack Obama won the state and its seven electoral votes, after all.

Well, this is easy to check, isn’t it? And at first glance there is something to the criticism of Iowa as racially unrepresentative of the US. According to the US Census Bureau, Iowa is 91.3 percent white. The US as a whole is 72.4 percent white. Iowa’s population is 2.9 percent black, as opposed to 12.6 percent for the US as a whole. Latinos make up 5 percent of the state versus 16.3 percent of the US.

There is no denying that the Hawkeye State is something of an outlier here. But race and ethnicity are not the only factors that determine whether a state is representative of the US as a whole. It may not be the most important, either, politically speaking.

On other demographic measures – income numbers, union membership, seat belt use, high school graduation rate, and so forth – Iowa is much more like the rest of the nation.

“People imagine Iowa to be more unrepresentative than it really is,” noted Prof. John Sides of George Washington University on the Monkey Cage political blog last month.

In 2009, political scientists Michel Lewis-Beck of the University of Iowa and Peverill Squire of the University of Missouri took 51 different indicators of social, cultural, political, and policy activities and measured how Iowa compared with the rest of the US. Among their data points was state average income, consumption of alcoholic beverages, percentage of vanity license plates, and voter turnout.

Their conclusion: Yes, Iowa is whiter and older than other states. But on almost everything else, it was among the more average states in the US.

“Is Iowa representative? Yes, at least reasonably so,” the pair concluded in a monograph on the subject.

Specifically, Iowa is the 12th most representative US state, their numbers showed. This put it far ahead of early-voting rival New Hampshire, which struggled in 27th place.

“All things considered, there seems no cause to take away Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential selection status,” wrote Lewis-Beck and Squire.

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