FiveThirtyEight tries to define the midwest:

Indiana, Iowa and Illinois appear to be the core of the Midwest, each pulling more than 70 percent of the vote (that may partly be because of their substantial populations). Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota each pulled at least 60 percent of the vote, so we can probably put them in the Midwest without too much fuss. Ohio, Missouri and Kansas each got more than half.

As for the rest of the states, it seems unclear whether they’re in the true Midwest.

When I was young, I actually had a very different idea of what the midwest was. It included a lot of overlap with the “real” midwest, but from a different focal point. The map basically stats out in the three states and expands to varying degrees outward. Ask me to define “midwest” and you would get the central column (from North Dakota down to Kansas) and then expand eastward. I’d not have included Ohio, which as it turns out is exactly what a lot of people think of when they think of the midwest. East of Iowa, you start getting into what I mostly think of as the Great Lakes region.

Kansas gets a fair amount of inclusion in the popular mind, but in my mind it’s the first state I think of when I think of “midwest.” Not sure why. I’ve never been there.

They do the same for the south, but reach more concrete results:

While the top few Midwest states barely pulled 80 percent of the vote, nearly 90 percent of respondents identified Georgia and Alabama as Southern, and more than 80 percent placed Mississippi and Louisiana in the South. South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida and North Carolina all garnered above 60 percent.

Southerners seem remarkably content to mess with Texas, giving it 57 percent support. Virginia, Arkansas and Kentucky hovered at about 50 percent.

Here, of course, we have a more immediate reference point: The Confederacy. That doesn’t explain all of the states, but you can start from there and then diminish the “southernness” of various constituent states like Texas.

I wonder the extent to which Virginia might join Maryland as a former southern state. North Carolina, too, but mostly Virginia. Or will its membership in the confederacy define it ever forward?

The only surprises to me were Florida, which I figured would be more on-par with Texas as a slightly more marginal sort of southern state, and Arkansas which I consider to be very southern. I’m also a little surprised that South Carolina wasn’t 100% because who in South Carolina doesn’t think of it as southern?


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Will Truman (trumwill) is a southern transplant in the mountain east with an IT background who bides his time taking care of their daughter while his wife brings home the bacon. You will probably be relieved to know that he does not generally refer to himself in the third-person except when he's writing short bios on his web page.

19 Responses to Define “Midwest”

  1. Peter says:

    If people pronounce “pin” and “pen” the same, you’re in the South. Here is a map. There are a few things about the map that I find a bit questionable, for example the sharpness of the Texas/New Mexico border, and the extent to which the pronunciation merger extends northward into Illinois and Indiana, but otherwise it seems pretty accurate. One thing that’s pretty telling is that the pronunciation merger does not occur in northern Virginia, South Florida and New Orleans, and these happen to be areas that often aren’t considered truly southern. It even bears out something I noticed when I was in Missouri some years back – people in Kansas City sound southern, but in St. Louis they do not.
    [Note: the pin/pen merger in Bakersfield is attributable to a long history of migration from the South.]

    • trumwill says:

      By that standard, I’m definitely a southerner.

      The history of Bakersfield is interesting. A lot of transplants from Texas and Oklahoma (generations ago). It actually makes for some good country music coming out of that area.

  2. mike shupp says:

    Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, maybe the western third of Pennyslvania — that was the Midwest as I recall it, defined in rather a handswinging way, from 60 years ago when I was growing up in Ohio. Pretty much, if this ever any real meaning, it corresponded to the area marked out by the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, with the exception of Minnesota and Wisconsin, which by 1950 seemed rather more “Northern” than “Midwest.” Iowa, Kansas, Missouri were never part of this Sacred Precinct — they were “Plains States” or maybe “Central.” Kentucky and West Virginia didn’t qualify either — they were “Southern” or (when we Ohioans got picky) “Border States.”

    But at this point, I dunno if that kind of lumping makes much sense. Probably true enough that Ohio farmers have a lot in common with Indiana and Illinois farmers, and that that all three states have lots of farm land. But for city dwellers? Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Cincinatti — what do those places have in common? Have they had the same kind of history in last half century or so? I don’t really see that.

    • trumwill says:

      I actually think of the cities you mention in a similar light. “Great Lakes Cities”… and, with the exception of Chicago, “tired, old cities.”

      I think I mentally associated “midwest” with what most people call “plains states”…

      • mike shupp says:

        “Tired” and “old” doesn’t quite hit it. Try “poor.”

        I was a little daunted somewhile back to discover that Dayton Ohio, which I remembered as a thriving little city of 300,000 people in the early 1960’s, had become a city of 140,00 people in the 2000’s, with a household income of $27,000 — not all that different from the $26,000 household income of Detroit. Other Ohio cities were about the same, from Youngstown at 24K in household income to 32K in Springfield and Toledo; Columbus was the outlier with a household income of 38K.

        In comparison, California household incomes range from 41K (Riverside) to 50K (Los Angeles) to 65K (San Francisco), Chicago’s at 44K, Atlanta’s about the same at 45K, ditto Denver, and Boston’s at 52K. Virtually a different country.

        Income stagnating, population declining, industry rusting. It rather looks as if the interior of the country has been abandoned, or devastated by a ruinous war. It strikes me that if the Republicans wanted a genuine campaign issue, rather than simply screaming about the evilness of Democrats, they’d focus heavily on the need to revitalize the cities and towns which haven’t shared American prosperity for a long long time. Damned if I can figure why they don’t.

  3. nikcrit says:

    T live in Wisconsin and this is how i define ‘the Midwest’: Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Iowa and Ohio. This is also a widely held view; you mentioned in your post Kansas; uh-uh; IMO that is solidly a ‘plain’ state, as is Nebraska and perhaps Oklahoma.’
    As for your ‘what do they have in common?’ remark? The answer is ‘a lot.’ Very similar class and race demographics, voting patterns, social virtues and problems, etc.

  4. As a New Yorker, I tend to lump everything from Ohio to to the Dakotas as the Midwest. Just like how the South is everything from Virginia to Texas.

    • trumwill says:

      I grew up very much thinking of Virginia as southern, though that’s kind of changed in recent years. Even before it flipped politically, the expansion of NoVa changed my perception somewhat. My perception of North Carolina has been changing, too.

      • mike shupp says:

        Been a while, but I used to read lots of civil war history, and one impression I gained is Virginia’s status as a true “Southern” state was ambiguous before 1861. The state was one of the last to leave the Union for the confederacy, for instance. It had number of officers on both sides in the conflict.

        And it’s accession was no small thing. Successionists had been contemplating a far-South location for a capital before Richmond became available. And much of the war was a struggle for control of the state — as long as Richmond was free, the South fought on despite Union gains scored by Sherman and Thomas; once Grant took the city, the fighting was essentially over, even though Kirby Smith and Forrest and Joe Johnston remained in control of major forces.

        Thinking about it, it strikes me Virginia would have seemed old and settled and prosperous and sophisticated in comparison to most of the Southern states, which were after all two centuries younger. Although this ought to be true of the Carolinas as well, and maybe Georgia.

        • trumwill says:

          Interesting. I do tend to think of Maryland and Delaware having been ambiguous prior to the Civil War, though I didn’t think it was as close a call for Virginia due to the overwhelmingness of the agricultural economy (and the trades revolving around agriculture and slavery specifically). Maybe they all were.

          Successionists had been contemplating a far-South location for a capital before Richmond became available.

          Indeed. The original capital was Montgomery.

    • Peter says:

      Even parts of New York are more Midwestern than anything else. Buffalo for sure, Rochester to an extent.

      • My employer’s territory happens to include Utica, NY, and compared to my Hudson Valley and “Downstate” members, the Utica folks tend to have “Midwestern” sounding accents, and their tendency to drive American cars really screams “not coastal” to me.

        FWIW, one could argue that New York state is still divided by the old colonial boundaries, and that anything west of the old Province of New York is “Midwestern”, which would make places like the Hudson Valley as the “Northeast”, but somewhere like Utica or Syracuse as “Midwestern”.

  5. J@m3z Aitch says:

    I have a friend from Iowa who can’t grasp that Indiana is in the Midwest. Having grown up in Indiana, I know that Hoosiers–particularly in the northern half of the state–can’t comprehend the idea that we’re not Midwestern. We are the Crossroads of America, the Hoosier Heartland–we are (in our minds) the epitome of Midwesternness.

    In my mind, Ohio barely manages to be Midwest, and only to the extent its proximate to Indiana and Michigan. Ohio is Midwest from the Indiana and Michigan borders over to Columbus, and to Cleveland if we’re being generous (although Cleveland feels more Eastern to me). Southern Ohio is Appalachia–in fact is officially designated as Appalachia. Pennsylvania is East/Mid-Atlantic.

    Iowa is Midwestern, as are Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas are Midwestern in their Eastern portions, but are Western when you cross approximately the 100th Meridian. Missouri is a mix-Midwestern partaking of a good portion of Southernness (more like southern Indiana and Illinois). Oklahoma–whatever the folks who live there like to believe–is not Midwestern. It’s far too much cowboy country to be Midwestern. I’m not sure it’s true Western, either. Oklahoma and Northern Texas may be in their own unique geographic category.

    All of this is absolutely empirically true from the viewpoint of a native Hoosier.

    • Peter says:

      Yet Indiana is politically more like the South than the rest of the Midwest.

    • trumwill says:

      I tend to think of Oklahoma and Texas in similar contexts. Or Oklahoma as North-North Texas… though as you say it doesn’t have a particular regional identifier. As Oklahoma mostly mirrors east Texas and East Texas is more southern than anything (albeit with more cowboy hats) I think Oklahoma gets in by association.

  6. anony says:

    Big Ten = Midwest.

    • trumwill says:

      Penn State kind of complicated that calculus. Rutgers and Maryland demolish it. But it works if you want to go back to the days when the Big Ten only had ten schools.

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