On Monday, April 18, political journalist and author Dante Chinni visited St. Olaf to discuss his take on the state of the presidential primaries.
Chinni attended Michigan State University and received his bachelor’s degree in journalism and history. After years of working for many publications, Chinni now works at the Wall Street Journal, PBS NewsHour and WNYC radio, analyzing and integrating data with election results and consumer data. Currently, a majority of his work surrounds his innovative idea to divide the United States into 15 unique communities, each defined by an intersection of political, demographic and geographic characteristics. Chinni wrote about the political trends of these communities in his 2010 book titled “Our Patchwork Nation.” Since then, Chinni has expanded on the project to produce a compilation of 3,100 counties identifying which of the 15 categories they belong to. Chinni uses this data with the Wall Street Journal, NewsHour and WNYC, and much of it can be found on the project’s website americancommunities.org.
One of the main components of Chinni’s work is the belief that the country cannot simply be broken down into the two political parties that many believe divide our nation so cleanly. Chinni analyzed each of the 15 catagories to see what types of behaviors are associated with each. Some of these behaviors include how residents vote, where they shop, what they eat and where they work. He named the categories based on defining demographic characteristics. For example, the “African American South” can be distinguished by its large African American population, “Graying America” by its high percentage of people over 65, “Evangelical Hubs” by the strong presence of evangelical Christians, “College Towns” by their large colleges and universities, and so on.
“We know enough about America to know it’s more than cities, suburbs and rural areas. It’s much more complex than that,” Chinni said.
He began his presentation by showing a commonplace United States map colored with red and blue, highlighting the geographical party lines many United States citizens and politicians are familiar with. Chinni said citizens are affected by factors besides demographics, and viewing politics in the U.S. as a binary of two parties with no subcategories or other considerations is simplistic.
“We’re trying to talk about how community is about the place you live in. It’s a collection of different kinds of demographics and beliefs that create this map, which is how I see the country,” he said.
Chinni’s data analysis reveals that people’s environments affect their choices, beliefs and personal politics. The American Communities Project has developed a complicated map, showcasing thousands of counties in different colors to demonstrate which ones are similar to each other and why. Chinni’s motivation for the idea was traveling, when he often found that many cities on opposite sides of the country are almost identical because of the multipolar characteristics that define different areas of the nation.
“These segments are not just about demographics, it’s about where they live and how they see the world. That’s why the consequences of this election are really important,” Chinni said.
By exploring how politics, voters and the two party system work, Chinni broke down some of the general ideas concerning party lines in order to determine why the lines have been drawn the way that they have. He then discussed several presidential candidates, including Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, analyzing their campaigns. He mentioned that Sanders is without a doubt the most popular presidential candidate in almost all “big city” counties. However, he has also seen that one reason Sanders cannot pull ahead of presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is because he cannot secure enough minority votes.
“I think Bernie tends to think that economics is what is shaping inequality, but I think minority communities aren’t completely sold on that,” Chinni said.
Chinni has seen that minority populations acknowledge the role economics plays in inequality, but that racism and culture are large contributors as well. Without geography, culture and socioeconomics, the intricacies of politics in regards to Sanders and Trump lose extremely important context. Regarding Trump, Chinni suggested that the majority of his votes come from areas identified as the “African American South.” He clarified that this does not mean Trump voters are African American, but that many of his supporters are white citizens living in or near counties identified as such.
To further explore Trump’s appeal as a candidate, Chinni discussed the 15 unique community categories, which provide a better understanding of the habits and beliefs of his supporters. Chinni argued that Trump has given a voice to ‘secular populists.’ He defined secular populists as people who are generally uneducated and irreligious, attending church on a less than weekly basis. This information has allowed Chinni to better understand Trump’s success in the election so far.
“The community in which you live generally says a lot about you, what you see, who you speak with and how you understand the world – all the way down to your consumer and media choices,” Chinni said.