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After the Midterms, Let’s All Take a Hike

We keep reading that the U.S. is more divided than ever politically. And that may be so. But even if all politics is local, not all local is politics.

When Americans come to Yelp to find the best park or place to hike in their hometown — or whichever town they’re in — they’re probably not thinking about politics, let alone about dividing themselves by party. They’re thinking about activities they love, and, according to our data, activities that are popular nationwide. Where parks and hiking aren’t equally popular, divisions reflect climate and culture, not campaigns. Hiking and parks aren’t blue and red; they’re green.

Ahead of Tuesday’s midterm elections, and all the additional “we are divided” headlines we can expect, we looked in our data for common ground. The 50 states and Washington, D.C., are all different; we were looking for differences that looked different than the ubiquitous red and blue electoral maps. In other words: Which categories’ relative popularity by state has nothing to do with the relative popularity of the two major political parties? (You can read more about the methodology at the bottom of this article.)

Among the most popular Yelp categories, hiking was the least political. It’s most popular in the West, the South Central and New England — all places with lots of national parks. The vast majority of Americans, whatever their registered party affiliation, favorably view the agency in charge of national parks, according to a 2015 survey.

Food and drink also can unite people across party lines. Everyone eats, and whether they eat cheesesteaks or visit wineries doesn’t have anything to do with how their state voted in 2016—as you can see in the chart below, which fills the sandwich of Republican- and Democratic-leaning categories with apolitical ones.

Dive bars and pubs also are apolitical, as are stores to buy alcohol for home consumption.

Not all Yelp categories are purple. Some really do seem to correspond to political divisions. Ramen, yoga, acupuncture and specialty schools (such as schools for driving, cooking and photography) get a bigger share of consumer interest in blue states; burgers, department stores and guns & ammo grab a bigger bite in red states.

Even for the most political categories, it’s likely that their skew in popularity isn’t caused by politics, or driving people’s votes. Instead, other factors may be affecting both. For more than half of the top categories, the differences in popularity by state explained less than 10 percent of political differences. When Yelp users are voting on a category, it’s a whole different kind of election. And the party is at the dive bar.

Methodology: We tallied U.S. page views, by category and state, in the 12 months leading up to the 2016 election. Then we calculated the share of page views for each category in each state plus D.C. For the 300 most popular categories, we calculated the correlation between the relative page-view share of each category in each state, and the vote shares in each state.

Peter Weir contributed to this article. Graphics by The DataFace. You can also view this post and read other data analyses from the Yelp Data Science team on Locally Optimal.