Guest Opinions

How can people confuse Idaho and Iowa? They’re not even close

Amanda Swails lives in Boise but grew up in Iowa and lived in Ohio. She and her husband usually keep a copy of Tim Woodward’s book about how people confuse Idaho and Iowa in their car.
Amanda Swails lives in Boise but grew up in Iowa and lived in Ohio. She and her husband usually keep a copy of Tim Woodward’s book about how people confuse Idaho and Iowa in their car. bmanny@idahostatesman.com

Michael Deeds’ article headlined, “I caramba! Iowa still mistaken for Idaho,” raises the question: Just how much alike are Idaho and Iowa?

Many people confuse the two states, to the consternation of residents of both the Gem State and the Hawkeye State. (After all, do minerals and birds look alike?) Perhaps there is some substantive reason for the confusion other than general ignorance of the U.S. interior by coastal peoples.

For instance, to cover for their inaccurate geography, people sometimes say that Idaho and Iowa are agrarian states, sparsely populated, overwhelmingly white and supportive of President Trump in the 2016 election, so it’s no surprise that the two get mistaken. Plus, they are similar-sounding state names that are easy to fumble. And these folks wouldn’t be wrong, but rather superficial.

I teach statistics to political science students, and I rely on quantitative information to learn about politics. In 2009 political scientists Michael Lewis-Beck and Peverill Squire published an article in the academic journal PS: Political Science and Politics titled “Iowa: The Most Representative State?” The question is of interest given Iowa’s first-in-the-nation presidential caucus, and protestations that Iowa is not a representative state, too different from the others to play such an oversized role in the presidential election campaign.

To answer this question, Lewis-Beck and Squire collected information covering each of the 50 states on 51 variables, everything from demographics (population size, age of population, percentage minorities) to education (college graduates, literacy rates), and from consumption (energy, beer and wine) to mortality and accidents (traffic fatalities) – and many things in between that reflect everyday life in its many facets.

Lewis-Beck and Squire subjected these data to statistical testing and found that Iowa was indeed a representative state, among the top three in most representative state economies (unemployment, per capita income, poverty level, homeownership) and among the top 12 most representative states in all broad representative categories (economy, diversity and social problems).

In contrast, Idaho ranks 48th in economical representativeness and 31st in all broad categories. Thus, unlike Iowa, these very comprehensive data show that Idaho is a most unusual state, an outlier, especially in economic terms. It is not in the same category as Iowa.

Like Deeds, I have some personal history in this matter, having lived in Iowa for nine years and Idaho for the past 20. Idahoans and Iowans are friendly and kind, and welcome visitors and new residents. They are states that take great pride in their achievements. The Gem State and the Hawkeye State deserve the respect of others to not confuse one for the other, because they really are rather different.

Ross Burkhart is a professor of political science at Boise State University. He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Iowa.

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