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Hearts, Minds, and Delegates

Democratic presidential contenders try to woo Indiana voters… and we like the attention

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


No matter what your political affiliation, your political beliefs, or even your level of interest in the 2008 campaign, you’ve probably woken up at some time in the past month and thought — what kind of upside down bizarro world are we living in where Indiana is playing a significant role in Democratic national politics?

We knew that 2008 was going to be an exciting campaign season, with neither party offering up a presidential or vice-presidential incumbent as candidate and seemingly plenty of contenders. Whatever happened, it was at least going to be interesting to watch. And that’s probably what a lot of people thought Indiana would end up doing — watching. With many politicians announcing their candidacy as much as a year ago, and several states pushing their primaries forward, Indiana’s presidential primaries in May looked to be business as usual. By then, Republicans and Democrats would have chosen their candidate, and all we’d have to worry about was governor.

Yet as we all know, a funny thing happened: the tight race between Senators Clinton and Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination has resulted in Indiana’s primaries actually mattering this time around, despite happening so late in the primary season.

Actually, “late in the primary season” maybe isn’t the best way to look at it, suggests Andy Downs of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics. The better question to ask might be why do other states hold their primaries so early. “Everyone has moved up because they want to be in the mix, they want to be one of the states that the candidates come and visit,” Downs says. “There’s been this belief that if you’re early, you’re more likely to have multiple visits and meaningful visits from candidates.”

There’s more to it than just bragging rights. Downs says the candidates feel compelled to discuss policy issues that are important to that state. “When people are trying to make decisions for who to support for president, they obviously have to look for a variety of factors,” Downs adds. “In a perfect world, we hope they deal with policy issues. We all want everyone to vote in a way that’s in the greatest interest of the country, the ‘common good,’ and the more you know about a candidate, the easier it is to be able to discuss what their policies will do for ‘the common good.’ In the case of the early states, while they can be thinking about common good — the people of New Hampshire and Iowa take their role as the first primary and first caucus very seriously — they also get to hear about policies that are a little more specific to their state.”

And in 2008, Indiana is getting a little of the attention normally reserved for the early states. In fact, Senator Clinton has said Indiana could be the “tie-breaker” in the race, and like Cinderella at the ball, the state has received multiple and (hopefully) meaningful visits from the two candidates as they try to win over Hoosier democrats’ hearts, minds… and 72 pledged delegates (Indiana’s delegates are divided up proportionally).

The last time Indiana saw this much attention from the Democrats was… “1968,” answers Downs before I can even finish the question. “Lyndon Johnson said he was not going to seek the nomination and a free-for-all broke out. Robert Kennedy came to town. Even Roger Branigin, governor of Indiana, said he was going to run for president.”

However long it’s been since we’ve seen a Democratic presidential candidate, recent visits by Clinton and Obama to Fort Wayne and throughout Indiana have inspired a flood of people registering to vote. Jeanne Nicolet of the Allen County Election Board, reads me an e-mail she received from the state election board just before we went to press. “56,910 registrations have come in in the last seven days statewide,” she says.

Nicolet has worked at the Allen County Election Board for 19 years, and has never seen this level of excitement for a presidential primary. “We’re anticipating a 50% turnout,” she says. In 2004, the voter turn-out for the presidential primaries was a whopping 14%, which is about normal for a presidential primary. “It’s normally our slowest election, because by the time you get to Indiana, the presidential candidates have usually been determined, so the enthusiasm isn’t there. Even though there are other things on the ballot, just knowing that it’s too late to make a difference tends to want to make people stay home.”

In anticipation for the hefty turn out at the polls, the Allen County Election Board is sending out every available voting machine, just like they would do in the fall election. Nicolet says they’ve added around 500 additional poll workers to take care of any traffic control problems and to make sure everyone is processed quickly.

Voter registration across the state has been working overtime — literally — to process all the applications. “Since April 1 we have processed over 7,000 applications,” says Deb Morrone of Allen County Voter Registration. She adds that unfortunately, they’ve had a new voter registration system since 2005, so it’s hard to compare the numbers from the last presidential election to this year… “But it’s much more than we have anticipated,” she says. “We have been working about 7 days a week, 13 hours a day.”

And apparently, Allen County has it relatively easy. As president of the Voter Registration Association, Morrone has heard stories from all over Indiana about counties strapped for man power and resources trying to keep up processing applications, to Marian County working 24 hours in three shifts.

It’s a time-consuming process. “We have to enter all the information they (the registrants) provide us,” Morrone says of processing the registrations. “We have to compare that to other registrations from both Allen County and around the state to see if they’re registered somewhere else so we can transfer that registration so they’re not registered in two places. We also have to compare their signatures to other registrations which may be on file. The most time-consuming, for us, is people just forget to fill things out or we can’t read their writing and we have to make three or four phone calls. When you’ve got 7,000 applications…”

Morrone says they haven’t tracked or analyzed statistics yet. “We’re seeing a lot of first time registrants, a lot of young people,” she says. “We don’t keep stats by age or race or area of the city. Once we put a voter registration in, it’s pending for eight days. It’s hard to track things with an eight-day lag.”

Registering isn’t the only way Indiana democrats have shown their enthusiasm. Volunteerism is up for both campaigns. Susan Boxell has never volunteered for a political campaign before, but decided to help out this year, working the phone lines for the Clinton campaign. She says that now that she’s retired, she has more time to devote to it, but more importantly, she’s simply enthused about the candidate. “I’m just strong on Hillary,” Boxell says. “She’s got the experience, I think she’s got the intelligence and I think she’s got the heart.”

Boxell certainly appreciates the Clintons’ visits, though she hasn’t gone to any of the rallies herself. “I know who I’m voting for,” she says. “Maybe my seat was taken by someone who was still on the fence.”

Participation, enthusiasm and civic pride aren’t the only benefits Indiana gains from active campaigning by the Democratic presidential contenders. When candidates come to a state, they spend money; it’s estimated that over $51 million was spent on the 2008 Iowa Caucus, with a lot of that going to advertising. Of course, there were more candidates in Iowa, but this is the first time in a long while where Indiana media outlets have received presidential money. Tom Antisdel, local sales manager for WANE TV, says Senator Clinton’s campaign has placed $39,000 with the station. Obama, who lagged behind Clinton in Indiana polls during the first part of April (more recent polls have put them closer), has placed $94,000. “And these numbers are only placed through April 21,” Antisdel says. “So there’s still two weeks to go after that.”

Antisdel anticipates both candidates will continue to place ads through the primary on May 6. Though April and May are always great months for TV stations in terms of revenue, Antisdel adds “…the politicians actually make a very busy time even more chaotic because of taking up inventory.”

Whether or not all this activity will inspire people to get out to the polls is another question. Voter registration is high, but in Indiana, voter registration is somewhat like the old Seinfeld joke about taking reservations — in Indiana, we can go out to register (it’s actually pretty easy), but will we deliver? One campaign in particular has been especially effective in getting people to register, with favorable results. “With the Obama campaign, what we have seen is when registration has gone up, turn out has been favorable for him,” Andy Downs says. “He is inspiring people in ways that a lot of other campaigns simply can’t do. That’s why this strategy could work for him. Since the Obama campaign seems able to inspire people, they have more resources, not just in terms of cash, but also in terms of volunteers who are willing to work very, very hard for them, so they’re able to do heavy voter registration drives, and then follow up with those people to make sure they show up to vote.”

But surely, whoever wins the nomination will return before November to show their gratitude. Right?

Probably not. Indiana doesn’t have the best record when it comes to voter turn out in the general election (figures for 2004 put us at around 54%), and after all, these are Democratic candidates we’re talking about. “It would be very easy to say no,” says Downs. “The issue is winning the electoral college. Indiana’s 11 votes are not a huge number, and since 1964 was the last time the majority of votes in Indiana went to the Democratic nominee…”

In fact, while Indiana has elected plenty of Democratic senators, governors, mayors, etc. throughout our history, we’ve only gone Democrat in four presidential elections in the last 100 years.

So enjoy it while you can, Indiana Democrats. Maybe you can take some solace in the fact that the Republicans aren’t going to spend much time here, either. They think we’re too much of a sure thing to bother.

But vote anyway.

The primaries happen on May 6.

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