What they're saying in swing counties

Lynne Sladky/AP

Voting stickers at the Miami-Dade County elections office on Oct. 10. A study of online conversations finds that voters in the large, diverse county are discussing issues differently from those in other parts of Florida.

Last week, we discussed state-by-state differences in online conversations around the issue of unemployment. That analysis of millions of words from news posts, blogs and user comments showed how the conversation in the swing states of Florida, Ohio and Virginia varies greatly because of cultural and socioeconomic factors.

But we also found big differences within the same state — Florida — over how people talk about the biggest issue of the 2012 campaign. This kind of information could be important to President Obama and Mitt Romney in how they shape their messages while visiting the state and in advertisements. But it's not clear that they're tailoring their messages to take advantage of this kind of distinction.

We looked at the online "unemployment" conversations in two very different Florida counties: Citrus, a growing but still not densely populated county near the state's Interstate 4 corridor; and Miami-Dade, the bustling, diverse, cosmopolitan metropolis that is home to Miami in the state's tip.

Miami-Dade and Citrus shared the exact same unemployment rate this summer: 10.3 percent. But the conversations around that issue were strikingly different.

In Miami-Dade, the conversation looks to be about the broader reasons for and political aspects of unemployment.

In Citrus, the discussion is less policy-based. It is much more about the area, its residents and families.

What's the significance? Well, Miami-Dade and Citrus are likely to vote in very different ways in November: They did four years ago when Barack Obama captured 58 percent of the vote in Miami-Dade, and 41 percent in Citrus.

Some Romney supporters wonder how the Republican presidential nominee is not running away with an election that is shaping up to be about a struggling economy. Romney's business background and position as challenger in hard economic times should be pushing him ahead.

These conversations in Miami-Dade and Citrus show Romney's followers may be missing a key point: Having everyone talking about the right topic is not enough. Even if everyone is "talking about the same thing," the ways they are talking about it are very different — and those differences are even more important.

Below are more details about the study (and follow this link for methodology and graphics):

Miami-Dade County

The conversation about unemployment over the past 18 months in Miami-Dade has focused on the big picture. The most common word in all of the posts about unemployment was "Florida," appearing in about three-quarters of the posts. That may sound obvious, but the word appeared in only about half of the posts in Citrus County.

Why? When you look at the other top words in Miami around unemployment, you get a sense of a conversation about state government, politics and the larger macroeconomic environment.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott's last name was popular in Miami-Dade, appearing in roughly one-third of the posts, compared with roughly one-tenth of the posts in Citrus.

The same is true for "Obama," which appeared in 30 percent of the Miami-Dade posts, but 20 percent of the posts from Citrus. Former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist's name popped up in a quarter of all of the Miami-Dade posts, but did not appear in Citrus.

It's not clear without a lot more analysis whether "Scott," "Obama" and "Crist" were tied to positive or negative mentions. But what is clear is the effort to tie the concept of unemployment to larger political forces.

Some of the strongest evidence comes from a few words with a very international perspective: "China" and "India." Those words appeared in almost 8 percent of the posts in Miami-Dade. They did not appear at all in posts from Citrus.

Miami-Dade, a county of 2.3 million people, has many more college graduates, a much higher median household income and a much more international focus in general. And those county-level differences make for a very different understanding of the issue.

The Jefferson Institute has studied the differences in the United States at the county level with Patchwork Nation, a demographic/geographic breakdown that puts counties into 12 different types. Miami-Dade is one of the country's biggest, most diverse counties. It is classified as an Immigration Nation community in Patchwork Nation, with stark differences from Citrus, which sits in the middle of the state on the Gulf Coast.

Citrus County

Some 270 miles up the Florida turnpike, the conversation about unemployment in Citrus reflects the place it is from: smaller in scale in some ways, less policy-driven and more personal.

That more local focus may be most easily seen through the top word used: "Citrus."

While the people in Miami-Dade were talking about "Florida" in relation to unemployment, in Citrus they most often used the words associated with "county."

The word "Citrus" also played a big role, appearing in more than two-thirds of all posts from the county. In Miami-Dade, "Miami" was used much less often — in less than one-fifth of all posts.

Beyond simple geography, the unemployment conversation in Citrus was also more built around personal words — words connected to loved ones and faith. Forms of the word "family" appeared in 31 percent of the posts in Citrus, compared with just 15 percent in Miami-Dade. The word "children" appeared in 18 percent of the posts in Citrus; less than 4 percent in Miami-Dade.

Maybe most revealing, "God" appeared in 10 percent of the posts from Citrus and 4 percent of the posts from Miami-Dade.

In some ways, it could be argued that "God" is an extremely personal word to be tied to unemployment; in other ways, it might be seen as the ultimate in broadening the conversation. But the conversation is not surprising when you consider the makeup of Citrus County.

North of Tampa, Citrus is a collection of fairly homogenous small towns — 95 percent white — and it has twice the proportion of Evangelical Christians as Miami-Dade. Faith, particularly evangelical faith, is a big part of the area. Add in an older population, lower incomes and fewer college degrees, and it only stands to reason that you would have a different conversation about unemployment.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio.


Patchwork Nation's Florida Map


A county-by-county comparison of the state, through the lens of Patchwork Nation. Miami-Dade is in the far southeast corner of the state; Citrus is on the northwest coast of the peninsula.



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