The Midwest, says the U.S. Census, consists of 12 states — Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

That definition is useful for statistical and marketing purposes, but one would be hard-pressed to find close cultural bonds between, say, the sparsely populated Dakotas and urbanized, industrial Ohio or the conservative communities of the Missouri Ozarks and the progressive cities of Madison, Wis., and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

But in the shorthand of politics and journalism, the Midwest represents a vast expanse of approximately 70 million souls who toil in factories, grow corn and wheat, and live somewhere between the more sophisticated and dynamic coastal states. This Midwest is the heartland of a great nation — where one finds the true faces of America. It is the place where people work hard, pay their bills, build sturdy and unassuming homes, go to church, and stay rooted.

It’s this Midwest that candidates for national office want to be from, even when they’re not.

“I was raised by small town folks from Kansas with Midwestern values of honesty and hard work and responsibility,” then-presidential candidate Barack Obama told NBC’s Brian Williams, “people who, you know, come straight out of central casting of small Midwest towns.”

Of course, the iconic Man of the Midwest remains Abraham Lincoln, the president that Hawaii-born Obama repeatedly invokes as his model.

In American mythology, Lincoln became the quintessential self-made man — honest, hard working, and, notwithstanding his well-documented melancholy, an optimist who believed in the promise of America.

Lincoln’s life and political career, says historian and author Kenneth Winkle, “came to represent essential Midwestern values.”

Would Lincoln have been a lesser man if he’d stayed in Kentucky — or headed to California or New York?

Are hard work, honesty, and optimism held in lower regard in those or any other parts of the nation?

The notion that the Midwest represents a more decent and levelheaded America is so pervasive that even locals tend to believe it.

And that may be why they keep getting disappointed, over and over. — (Dec. 3, 2008)

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