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November 8, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Election excellence: 30 out of 32 is pretty darn good

TERRE HAUTE — Detroit car makers unveil the latest Mustangs and Corvettes on Wabash Avenue.

California vineyards test-market new line of wines at the Banks of the Wabash Festival. Chic models stroll down a runway in Hulman Center, dressed in never-before-seen creations (maybe even one of those gigantic Medusa-looking masks that nobody else on the planet would ever wear) transported here by New York fashion designers. Movies should premiere here — the “Vigo County Film Festival” … has a nice ring to it, right?

Yes, Vigo County’s uncanny presidential bellwether status is “gold, Jerry, gold,” to borrow a “Seinfeld” phrase.

No other county in the United States more closely reflects the nation’s political inclinations, according to research by historian Dave Leip, who maintains the Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections website. If a famous toy company allowed it, the local slogan could be “Americans R Us.”

Vigo came through again Tuesday night, just as it has for the past 124 years, with just two fluke exceptions. A majority of the county’s voters picked President Obama over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, mirroring the national outcome. Going into Tuesday, Vigo County had favored the overall presidential winner in every election since 1888, except for misses in 1908 and 1952.

The chances of extending that streak — by far the most accurate in the nation — seemed dicey. Obama looked likely to win re-election, but Romney seemed a sure thing to carry Indiana by a wide margin. If so, even politically fickle Vigo County would be hard-pressed swim against the Hoosier tide.

Yet, it happened.

Romney won big in Indiana, but the president carried Vigo County and the nation — just like predecessors George W. Bush, Clinton, George H.W. Bush, Reagan, Carter, Nixon, Johnson, Kennedy, Eisenhower (the second time), Truman, FDR, Hoover, Coolidge, Harding, Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison. The only two non-winners favored by Vigo County were Adlai Stevenson in ’52 (the Democrat senator from neighboring Illinois who lost to Dwight Eisenhower) and William Jennings Bryan in ’08 (the famous orator who lost to Republican William Howard Taft). Vigo missed those by narrow margins — Stevenson polled 35 more votes than Ike, and Bryan topped Taft by 462.

The margin between Obama and Romney was close, too, but the president prevailed. As of Wednesday afternoon, the county’s unofficial tally gave Obama 19,707 local votes to 19,368 for Romney. Of Vigo’s 30 correct picks in the past 32 presidential elections, only two carried the county by a slimmer margin — John Kennedy over Richard Nixon (by 165 votes) in 1960, and Harrison over Grover Cleveland (by 171) in 1888. Fittingly, the 2012 national popular-vote split was tight, too — Obama received 60 million votes to Romney’s 57.3 million.

Our clairvoyance fascinates America. Newspapers from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., cited Vigo County’s track record in their coverage Tuesday night and Wednesday morning. Even CNN gave this community face time (or, more specifically, “map time”). Yes, at 1:20 a.m. Wednesday — when most “watch parties” were running on caffeine fumes — CNN election night anchor John King displayed a nearly all-Republican red map of Indiana, before the cameras zoomed in on a small blue patch on the state’s western border. With Wolf Blitzer looking on, King then explained the county’s incredible knack.

Outsiders wonder how the community became so representative of the country. Vigo does contain a unique collection of people (which comes as no surprise to longtimers). It’s blue-collar, yet white-collar, with organized labor roots (dating back to unionism pioneer and Terre Haute native Eugene V. Debs) working alongside professors and administrators at five local colleges. There are pockets of affluence and a large middle-income sector, but also one of the state’s highest child poverty rates. The county is less racially diverse than the nation, but remains home to numerous ethnic populations. The city leans Democratic, but that party, locally, includes lots of socially conservative folks.

It all adds up in a simple mathematical concept — Vigo County equals America.

Thus, if startup companies, inventors and businesses wanted to try out a new product, what better place to serve as a litmus than this county? As we’ve stated before, the town-hall style presidential debate in 2016 should happen here. Indeed, to feel the nation’s pulse, the only logical place to visit is that little dot John King pointed to on the CNN map — Vigo County, as American as it gets.

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

 

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