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Red state blues

A Democratic presidential nominee is spending lots of time, money, and energy in a bid to win Indiana’s 11 electoral votes. What the heck is going on here?

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


The presidential primary last May brought a flurry of attention to Indiana as both Democratic party candidates and their spouses came seeking our vote in what was a very tight race. It was the first time Indiana had played a hand in Democratic Party politics since dinosaurs strode the Earth (actually, it was 1968), and we loved the attention. Senators Clinton and Obama toured the state, bought ads, made surprise visits, gave speeches… and they promised us that when they finally, officially, secured their party’s nomination for the presidency, they wouldn’t forget us.

To which even the most idealistic Democrat in the great state of Indiana might reply… “yeah, right!”

The facts are well documented: a Democratic presidential candidate has not received Indiana’s 11 votes in the electoral college since 1964. No matter what party they’re from, presidential nominees just don’t do a lot of campaigning in the state — the Republicans count us as a sure thing, the Democrats think we’re a lost cause, and we’re only worth 11 votes anyway.

But apparently, the smug know-it-alls among us were wrong. Democratic Presidential contender Barack Obama — who lost the state to Senator Clinton by a small margin during the primary back in May — has come on strong in Indiana. As of this writing, the Obama campaign has aired three different TV ads in the state. They’ve opened 31 offices, including one in Fort Wayne, and according to the campaign headquarters in Indianapolis, their supporters and volunteers have hosted more than 2100 grassroots events in all 92 counties.

“Indiana has been more than happy over the years to vote for Democrats, whether they’ve been mayors, state legislators, governors, etc,” says Andy Downs of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW. “So when people say it’s a Republican state, they have been talking most accurately about the presidential race.”

Brian Howey, a reporter who publishes Howey Politics Indiana (www.howeypolitics.com), a popular online briefing on Indiana politics based in Indianapolis, agrees. “You hear the phrase ‘Indiana is conservative. They don’t like change’” he says. “Don’t buy that for a minute. Consider in the last three election cycles, the Indiana house has changed hands, we’ve tossed out an incumbent governor, we’ve tossed out the president of the Indiana senate and the senate finance chairman, we’ve had three congressional seats flip, and at least 36% of our mayors go down in defeat, including the mayor of Indianapolis. So the voters here in this state are willing to make a change, and obviously you can’t go anywhere near Obama or his website without hearing that word.”

Yet while calling Indiana “Republican” may only be fair when talking about the presidential race, we are a pretty conservative state. According to Downs, common thought is that in order to secure the Democratic nomination for president, most candidates had to appeal to the liberal wing of the party, something that generally doesn’t sit well with us. But this time around, the extended primary campaign made both candidates spend a lot of time in Indiana and generated a certain amount of excitement. “So Hoosiers are doing what Hoosiers do when they’ve had the opportunity to meet candidates,” Downs says. “They have been willing to set aside their normal reaction in voting and consider voting for someone else. When we get to know someone, it is not uncommon for us to say ‘what the heck. We will go ahead and consider voting for you’.”

This tireless campaigning has shown results, too. An August 29-30 poll taken by Howey Politics Indiana and Gauge Market research showed the candidates practically neck-and-neck, with McCain at 47.3% and Obama at 45.3% — well within the margin of error. (The poll was taken just hours after Senator McCain named Alaska governor Sarah Palin to the vice-presidential spot). A more recent CNN poll gave McCain a six point lead, but even that, says Howey, is "doable."

In short, the Obama campaign has turned what is typically considered one of the reddest of red states when it comes to presidential elections into something kinda sorta close to a battleground state. The Obama campaign isn’t afraid to use that phrase, either. “We absolutely believe strongly that Indiana is a battleground state, we absolutely believe that Senator Obama can win this state on November 4,” says Jonathan Swain, communications director for the Indiana Obama campaign.

A cynic might argue that this is a bluff, a way for the Obama campaign to force the McCain campaign to spend money, time, and energy on a state they thought was in the bag, and distract them from those big-vote, key battleground states that played such significant roles in the last two elections. Not so, says Swain. “These are a lot of resources to be devoting to a bluff,” he says. “This is a tight race across the country, so everyday, every stop, every hour counts. Certainly I can’t tell the Republicans what to think, but I believe we’ve gotten past any questions of whether or not this is a bluff. It’s clear Senator Obama believes he can win here.”

As far as strategy is concerned, it might be more accurate to suggest that the Obama campaign has taken to heart the lessons of the previous two presidential elections — namely, in a tight race, winning a few of the smaller states here or there can make all the difference. “The Obama campaign figures they can carry almost all the states that John Kerry carried in 04,” says Brian Howey. “They’re up by about 15 points in Iowa, which brings them to about 259 electoral college votes. Add Indiana’s 11 to that and you’re at the magic number. There’re all sorts of scenarios like that. But from the polling we’ve seen, the change agent, the economy here, his proximity, he (Obama) is getting some traction.”

But why Indiana? Why not another on the fence state that leans more “blue” than “red”? Jonathan Swain claims the Obama campaign had always thought of Indiana as a possibility, but there’s thinking about something and then there’s thinking about something. What made the campaign take a closer look was the enormous turnout on the Democratic side in the primary. “The total number of people who turned out for the Democratic primary was nearly 1.3 million,” says Jonathan Swain. “That is 300,000 more votes than John Kerry received in Indiana in the general election in 2004. It’s also just under 25,000 votes fewer than what Mitch Daniels received to win the governor’s race in ’04.”

In every state, the Obama campaign has been very effective in getting people to register to vote; in Indiana, nearly half-a-million people updated their voter registration or registered for the very first time.

Of course, not all those voters are necessarily Obama supporters or even Democrats, and they weren’t all registered by Obama’s get-out-the-vote campaign. On a local level, Wayne Township Trustee Richard Stevenson has been organizing voter registration drives on his own. His drive has registered over 400 people (his goal is a thousand), and he says he’s seen an “unprecedented” number of people excited about the election. “This particular election, we know it’s historical, but we thought ‘let’s drop the ‘p’ off of politics, or the D or the R off of politics, and just capitalize on empowering the people’,” he says. “Let the people decide themselves who they would like to support.”

As Stevenson points out, the entire campaign season has been historical, far beyond the fact that a major American political party has its first African American candidate. There are many reasons for people to get excited and want to participate.

But throughout the primary season, wherever voter registration increased, the Obama campaign did well. “The Obama campaign has been a very good combination of old concepts — shoe leather; in other words, make sure you’re out there knocking on doors — and new concepts of using technology to make sure information gets transferred as quickly as possible, etc,” says Andy Downs. “In so doing, they’ve been able to organize two groups who do not participate on a regular basis (African Americans and young people), and use those groups and others to help appeal to more traditional groups.”

Obviously, having a strategy and executing it effectively are two different things. If voters hadn’t liked what they heard, they wouldn’t have turned out. Brian Howey suggests that the key to getting so many people inspired is that Obama’s message of change resonated in a state that’s been hit hard by the economic downturn. “Indiana has taken it on the chin in many ways,” he says. “The manufacturing sector, the oil presidency of Bush-Cheney has obviously had a huge impact on the auto industry and the RV industry here. The fact that we lead the nation in foreclosures is also something.”

He adds something that might shock — no, stun — some hardcore Republican faithfuls. “I also think Obama and Governor Daniels feed off a very similar notion: they’re both change agents, and obviously our polls show Governor Daniels with an 18 point lead. We saw in our cross tabulations that a number of people, particularly independents, are poised to vote for both Daniels and Obama.”

Many political watchers still believe a victory in Indiana will be tough for the Obama campaign to pull off. True, the Obama campaign is aggressive, and McCain doesn’t have much of a presence in the state, but shrugging off a habit of 40+ years… well, we may not be as afraid of change as we’re perceived to be, but that doesn’t mean we exactly embrace it. That said, the idea of Indiana as a player in a presidential election is pretty novel and heady stuff. It’ll be interesting to see how the Democratic presidential candidate does here in November, and if even a close race inspires future presidential candidates from both parties to not write off Indiana voters or take them for granted.

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