How Washington D.C. Is Different From the Rest of the Country

The city is an American outlier.

President Obama's motorcade drives back to the White House on February 5, 2014.
National Journal
Matt Berman
Feb. 11, 2014, midnight

There’s an­oth­er new poll that ap­pears to show that Wash­ing­ton, D.C., is really, rad­ic­ally dif­fer­ent from the rest of the coun­try.

In a sur­vey of all 50 states plus D.C., the na­tion’s cap­it­al is the only place with a pos­it­ive rat­ing on the 2013 Gal­lup Eco­nom­ic Con­fid­ence In­dex. That in­dex is a com­pos­ite meas­ure of how Amer­ic­ans view the eco­nomy today, and what they think the pro­spects are for the fu­ture, based on a -100 to +100 scale. D.C. comes away with a +19 on the in­dex, fol­lowed by Mas­sachu­setts at a -1. At the oth­er end is West Vir­gin­ia, which has a -44 (!) on the in­dex. The na­tion­al av­er­age for 2013 was -16.

That’s an ob­vi­ously huge gap. So what could ex­plain it? It’s not that D.C.’s eco­nomy is boom­ing com­pared with the rest of the coun­try. Wash­ing­ton still had a re­l­at­ively high, 8.1 per­cent, un­em­ploy­ment rate in Decem­ber, com­pared with West Vir­gin­ia’s 5.9 per­cent rate or with that month’s na­tion­al rate of 6.7 per­cent.

Oth­er ideas? Gal­lup points to par­tis­an­ship, which def­in­itely makes some sense. Obama’s ap­prov­al rat­ing in Wash­ing­ton dwarfs the level in any oth­er state, with 80.8 per­cent ap­prov­ing of the pres­id­ent in 2013. West Vir­gin­ia, on the oth­er hand, thought worse of the pres­id­ent than nearly any oth­er state in 2013, with only a quarter of its res­id­ents ap­prov­ing of his per­form­ance.

But that doesn’t really ex­plain why the eco­nom­ic con­fid­ence gap between the Dis­trict of Columbia and the rest of the coun­try would be so large — es­pe­cially when states such as Hawaii, which had the second-highest Obama ap­prov­al rat­ing in 2013, still ran out­side the top 10 on the con­fid­ence in­dex, at -12. 

The real thing that makes D.C. dif­fer­ent from every state in the coun­try, and makes it a con­stant U.S. out­lier, is that it is a city. It’s not a state. And con­stantly com­par­ing the city to states can be mis­lead­ing.

It’s the same reas­on Gal­lup re­cently found that D.C. is the na­tion’s most lib­er­al “state,” beat­ing out the likes of Ver­mont, which elec­ted a self-de­scribed so­cial­ist to the Sen­ate. Or why The New York Times last year called D.C. the gay­est place in the Amer­ica, a claim that The Wash­ing­ton Post‘s Mark Ber­man (no re­la­tion) dis­sec­ted a few months back. That dis­sec­tion fits the new su­per­lat­ives, too:

The prob­lem: D.C. is a city, not a state. So com­par­ing D.C. ( pop­u­la­tion: more than 632,000; land area: 61 square miles, ac­cord­ing to the Census Bur­eau) with, say, Ok­lahoma ( 3.8 mil­lion people; 68,000 square miles) or Montana ( 1 mil­lion people; 145,000 square miles) doesn’t really work.

This sort of thing hap­pens all the time. Sur­veys reg­u­larly lump D.C. in with the 50 states, des­pite the in­her­ent dis­son­ance in com­par­ing an urb­an jur­is­dic­tion with states that can house a mix of urb­an, sub­urb­an, and rur­al areas. And re­port­ers, my­self in­cluded, will write about these re­ports, adding in caveats about how it is like com­par­ing apples and or­anges (if the or­anges were 10 or 20 times as large as the apples).

As a city, D.C. is a pretty skewed sample for a poll of states — es­pe­cially much lar­ger, real­er states such as Texas and Cali­for­nia. D.C. may be a su­premely lib­er­al city, a very gay (if not the gay­est) city, or an ab­nor­mally eco­nom­ic­ally con­fid­ent city. But to com­pare it to states kind of misses the point, and makes the city seem more re­moved from the rest of Amer­ica than it really is.

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