What is the Midwest? It's a geographic region, often generally understood to be the middle of the country. It's a cultural identifier, also called by many America's Heartland (or Breadbasket). And it's the home of hotdish. What it is not is a clearly defined and universally accepted list of states that belong to it. So naturally, there are plenty of debates about where the boundaries of the Midwest should truly be set. Most recently, The Washington Post revived the conversation with data analysis of the "most Midwestern things on Earth," but a popular story from FiveThirtyEight is often credited with the latest round of arguments. For this data journalist from Kansas (who also lived in Iowa for several years), it's a particularly fond topic.
For its addition to the debate, YouGov asked its members which states they considered to be part of the Midwest. The 1,000 U.S. adult citizens who participated chose from a list of states that included ones considered to be a part of the Midwest by the U.S. Census, plus other nearby states, to determine the popular consensus on the region's breadth and boundaries. YouGov provided people with a U.S. map to reference and, for each state included in the poll, asked them to say whether "all of the state," "part of the state," or "none of the state" was in the Midwest.
The YouGov poll finds that five states are considered to be entirely in the Midwest by at least half of Americans: Iowa (61%), Kansas (55%), Illinois (53%), Nebraska (53%), and Indiana (51%).
About half say that Missouri (49%) is entirely Midwestern, with an additional 19% saying that Missouri is partially in the region. Based on ranking states by the share of Americans who say each one is entirely or partially in the Midwest, Missouri ranks as the third most Midwestern of the states. But the Show-Me State drops to sixth when ranking by the share of Americans who say "all of this state is" in the region — highlighting the fluidity of how the boundaries of the Midwest are being defined.
Net scores reinforce Iowa and Kansas as the country's most Midwestern states
The survey asked Americans to say whether certain states are entirely, partially, or not at all a part of the Midwest. From the results, it is possible to determine the state’s net score – that is, how much more likely people are to say it is at least somewhat a part of the Midwest than not.
The net scores only emphasize that Iowa and Kansas embody what Americans believe to be the Midwest. Each state earns a net score of +57, meaning the percentage of Americans who say at least a part of it is in the region is 57 percentage points higher than the percentage who say it is not. The net scores for Nebraska (+49), Missouri (+47), Indiana (+46), Illinois (+43), Wisconsin (+39), and Minnesota (+31) also give them a strong claim to be a part of the Midwest.
Ope, sorry — but what do Midwesterners think?
When it comes to the most definitively Midwestern states, people who consider themselves to be Midwesterners actually differ slightly from the non-Midwesterners (defined as people who say they do not consider themselves Midwestern or who are unsure). YouGov used this definition of self-identified Midwesterners to account for the fact that many people who identify with the region could have moved out of it — and many who don't identify with it may have moved into it.
Only 72% of Americans who are living in a state that is in the Census region of the Midwest say they consider themselves Midwesterners. About one in five (18%) people living in Western states consider themselves Midwesterners, as do 11% of people living in the Northeast and 10% of people living in the South.
Self-defined Midwesterners are more likely than Americans overall to say Michigan is at least partially in the Midwest (69% vs. 47%), as well as Illinois (81% vs. 61%) and Ohio (69% vs. 50%). Midwesterners are also more likely to say Iowa is entirely or partially in the Midwest (78%) compared to non-Midwesterners (69%), and it ranks second overall on Midwesterners' list of Midwestern states (both when accounting for the net score and the share who say it's entirely or partially Midwestern).
Midwesterners are slightly less likely to say Kansas is entirely or partially in the region (70%) compared to Americans overall (73%) or non-Midwesterners (74%), but Kansas falls to the sixth overall spot on Midwesterners' ranking of Midwestern states. That's not to say Kansas isn't considered a part of the Midwest — just that other states outrank it among Midwesterners.
In the opposite direction, Midwesterners are less likely to claim Colorado as a part of the region than non-Midwesterners are to put it in the Midwest (32% vs. 46%). Presumably reflecting their knowledge of their own region, Midwesterners are less likely to pick “don’t know” as a response. And as a group, Midwesterners generally come closer to consensus about a state's regional status — in or out — than do Americans overall.
What is the Midwest after all?
YouGov also asked respondents in an open-ended question, "What do you think of the Midwest?" Many talked about its geographic location or its weather — the region is known for getting the full blast of all four seasons). Others described the Midwest as "boring," "fine," or "flat." Some referenced its conservative values, while others referred to it as "America's breadbasket" filled with hard-working people.— Carl Bialik and Taylor Orth contributed to this article
This poll was conducted on June 16 - 20, 2022, among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Explore more on the methodology and data for this poll.
Image: Adobe Stock by rudi1976