Dante Chinni is the director of Patchwork Nation, which uses demographic, voting and cultural data to study communities. It is part of the nonpartisan, not-for-profit Jefferson Institute, which teamed with NPR to examine what can be learned about different communities through online text analysis. The project had Knight Foundation funding.
Since the beginning of the Great Recession, unemployment has driven much of the national conversation, and with good reason.
Even as the stock market has recovered, the struggles of ordinary Americans in the job market continues, with the latest unemployment report showing the jobless rate finally dipping below 8 percent for the first time since early 2009.
But what does the unemployment conversation look like? While the national media and campaign rhetoric often boil the issue down to numbers or anecdotes, it is a much broader topic that carries with it a host of different concerns and fears in people — losing one's pension, losing one's home, losing one's future.
To get an understanding of just how different those conversations are, the Jefferson Institute analyzed 20 months' worth of blogs, news stories and story comments in communities around the country, focusing on three crucial presidential swing states: Florida, Ohio and Virginia. We combed through millions of words in online discussions concerning unemployment, and looked for word patterns and correlations.
So what do people talk about when they talk about unemployment? A lot of that depends on where those people live. The differences we found help explain some of what we see in the presidential campaign, have led to new discoveries of stories the national media missed, and will likely play a big role in the final month of the 2012 campaign.
In the Buckeye State, it's hard to talk about jobs — who has them and who doesn't — without talking about organized labor. In all of the unemployment content we looked at, the word "unions" was four times more likely to show up in posts and stories from Ohio: It showed up more than three times in every 1,000 words; in the other states, it was less than once in every 1,000 words.
And the correlation carried through to words usually associated with unions: "strike," "negotiation" and "contract."
There are undoubtedly a few factors behind the use of these words. First, of these three states, Ohio has the highest level of union membership by far — nearly 15 percent of all the workers in the state are represented by a union. The other states don't even reach 8 percent, and if you extend Ohio's numbers to households covered by unions, the figure would grow substantially.
Second, the state's public union members were hit or energized (depending on your point of view) by the efforts of Gov. John Kasich in 2011 to limit their collective bargaining rights. Those efforts clearly created a lot of dialogue, but it has carried through to 2012, as labor fights and strikes have come to steer the conversations.
To be clear, none of this means that Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney is bound to lose Ohio. There are still many people in the state who are not covered by a union, and many voters may dislike the power of public unions.
But these figures show that in the context of unemployment, arguably the most important issue of the campaign, unions figure prominently in the Ohio conversation. In fact, "union" was seen more frequently in posts and stories discussing unemployment than even words like "president" and "Romney." Ohio is the only one of our three states where that was true.
Those conversations may help explain why Romney has been trailing in most polls to President Obama in the state. Beyond Kasich, the Republican Party has had a testy few years dealing with labor unions around the country, and particularly in the Great Lakes region. Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker actually passed a similar measure to Kasich's, is also proving to be a challenge for Romney, even though he chose Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate.
Of the three states we examined, Florida has seen the hardest times in the recession and the recovery. In August, the unemployment rate stood at 8.8 percent, compared with the national rate of 8.1 percent. Virginia and Ohio were actually below the national rate at 5.9 percent and 7.2 percent, respectively.
And those troubles showed through in our analysis. "Unemployment," or variations of the word, showed up the most in the stories and posts we examined in Florida, almost four times for every 1,000 words. Neither Virginia nor Ohio were even at 2.5 times per 1,000 words overall. Driving home the point, the state was the clear leader for use of the word "job" and in variations of the phrase "lose job" or "get job."
But the conversation about unemployment in Florida was about more than just the troubles people had with finding or holding employment. There was also a stronger tinge of pain in the Florida stories and posts than we saw elsewhere. There were more references to words like "feed," "rent" and "food stamps."
In addition, the troubles in Florida were emphasized by the surprisingly high use of the word "homeless." The word appeared more than twice as often as it did in other states.
Why? The state's troubled housing market has been in the headlines for years now, but homelessness in the state, compared with Ohio and Virginia, is three times higher.
While the national media have not focused much attention on it yet, the problem is getting coverage within the state. Some cities have passed measures to give homeless men and women one-way bus tickets out of town. In the past year, the practice reached the city of Fort Lauderdale, which has thousands of homeless and has seen their numbers grow during the recession and housing crunch.
As the candidates swing through this state over the coming weeks, this is a crucial point to keep in mind. Of the three states we examined, Florida may be the most interested in hearing about economic fixes, but it may also be the state most concerned about program cuts and/or taking care of people who were hit hardest in the Great Recession.
Sometimes where you live has a lot to do with how you see the world. Such is the case with Virginia, which borders Washington, D.C.
Of the three states we looked at, the conversation in Virginia was the most D.C.-centric, or at least the most focused on the federal government. Some of the words that outperformed: forms of "federal government," "capital," "tax rate," "Social Security" and "Medicaid." They are words about Washington, its programs and policy.
And remember, those words came up in an examination of the online conversation around unemployment. The point is not that people in Virginia seem more focused on their neighbor to the immediate north, which may be expected; it's that they are more focused on Washington and its actions when the conversation is about jobs.
There's good reason for that. As we noted above, the unemployment rate for Virginia sits far below the national figure. In part, that's because of federal jobs and money in the state. In 2009, Virginia received more than $19,000 per capita in federal spending.
One other word in Virginia's unemployment conversation reveals a Washington slant, and it is an important one: "military" — along with similar words like "defense" and "veteran." The Defense Department is heavily represented in Virginia, from the Pentagon to Norfolk. In 2009, there was more than $18 billion in defense outlays in the state — through payroll and contracts; only Texas had more, and Ohio and Florida had less than half that. Any talk of defense cuts will weigh heavily on people's minds here.
And that goes for other federal programs as well, as austerity creeps into the presidential dialogue. Any talk of cuts in Washington has ramifications on jobs and unemployment in Virginia, as these online conversations show.
In fact, when you look at these three states and the unemployment discussions in them, you understand how even something as obvious as unemployment is not an easy topic for Obama or Romney.
It's true that no one likes unemployment, but the way people discuss it, its causes and what people want done about it in terms of policy is not simple and differs significantly place to place — even in online media. Everyone wants to bring unemployment down, but the details on how to do that hold many devils — and they can be very different depending on where one lives.
The different problems these states have suffered make the people in each of them receptive to — and turned off by — different messages. Add in the problems of a growing national debt, a trade imbalance and a desire for a smaller government, and you can see how even the most basic issue of the 2012 campaign can be a minefield all by itself.