News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion Columns

October 14, 2012

MARK BENNETT: On Election Day, as Vigo County goes, so goes the United States

TERRE HAUTE — Hempstead sounds like a fine place.

Founded in 1644 by European settlers, some say they named the town after its primary farm crop — hemp. Today, Hempstead houses the headquarters of Swiss International and Lufthansa airlines. Hofstra University calls that New York community its home. So did Dr. J, as a kid, for a couple of years.

No offense to Hempstead, but the ideal setting for Tuesday’s town hall style presidential debate is not the Hofstra campus, where it will indeed occur.

Terre Haute would be the perfect location.

In fact, Terre Haute should host one of the debates every four years. The leaders of the local four-year colleges — Indiana State University, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College — would do America a favor by coordinating efforts to bring a 2016 presidential debate to one of their scenic campuses. No place serves as a better barometer of the nation’s desires in the presidential selection process than Vigo County and its county seat, Terre Haute.

As Vigo County goes, so goes the United States, at least on Election Day.

The county’s status as an electoral bellwether is amazing. Since 1888, the majority of Vigo Countians have voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election except two — 1908 and 1952 — and those two misses came by razor-thin margins, according to statistics compiled by election historian Dave Leip. In ’52, Adlai Stevenson of neighboring Illinois carried Vigo County by 35 votes over Republican Dwight Eisenhower, who won the presidency in a landslide. Just 18 voting switches to Ike would’ve kept the county’s record perfect going back to 1908. In that election, Vigo voters gave loquacious Democrat William Jennings Bryan a 462-vote edge over William Howard Taft. (Full names were in vogue that year.) Like Eisenhower, Taft routed Bryan in the national balloting.

Aside from those two aberrations, Vigo County has mirrored America, including historic 2008. No other county comes close.

“Vigo is a standout,” Leip said in an email response last week.

As a result, national, and even international, journalists have journeyed to Terre Haute in advance of presidential elections, hoping to find the formula inside the local crystal ball, especially in 2008. The Italian daily newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore sent correspondent Mario Margiocco to Vigo County in late October. The eyes of an outsider often reveal realities overlooked by locals.

“In the United States, there are many nice places,” he said in a visit to the Tribune-Star newsroom, “and the Midwest might not be the nicest one, but it is the more interesting one; the real heart of the country. If I can, I want to feel the mood.”

By contrast, Margiocco noted that voters in Manhattan in New York have backed the losing candidate in 60 percent of the elections. “Since 1928, Manhattan has always voted for [what] we call ‘progressive’ [candidates], because they never change their opinion,” he said, “but you do here.”

That’s the secret — Vigo Countians are open-minded. Who knew?

Of course, that suggestion might come as a shock to former residents who left this community because “Terre Haute never changes.” And, they have a point. Lord knows, resistance to the C-word here is legendary, in some respects. The Terre Haute House decayed before our eyes for nearly 40 years, at the very heart of the city, but eventually, positive change happened.

Vigo County should celebrate its reputation for political open-mindedness and accuracy.

The 2008 election exemplifies the community’s unique outlook. That year, 52.9 percent of American voters chose Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain, and Obama’s Electoral College edge was 365 to 173. He picked up Indiana’s 11 Electoral votes by narrowly winning the state, 49.9 percent to McCain’s 48.9 — the first Democrat to take the Hoosier state since LBJ in 1964. Only 15 Hoosier counties favored Obama, but most were in the metropolitan and college communities. Of those, only five were south of Interstate 70 — Vigo, Monroe, Vanderburgh, Spencer and Perry.

Even though Obama led national polls late in that campaign, some political insiders wondered whether Vigo County’s bellwether string would end. Obama, the first major-party black candidate, would need lots of support from white voters to carry the county — a place that’s not immune to, or devoid of, pockets of racism, not unlike many small American cities.

The county proved its bellwether mettle again.

Obama took Vigo County by a 15.8-percent margin, receiving 57 percent of the vote here, exceeding both the national and statewide spreads. His two visits to Terre Haute won over voters who might otherwise have backed his rival. “He spent a lot of time here, and that mattered,” said Tom Steiger, a sociology professor at Indiana State University, who has conducted polls of local voters in past elections.

Vigo’s bellwether label will be sternly tested again this November. The president and Republican challenger Mitt Romney stand basically even in the national polls going into their town hall debate Tuesday night at Hempstead. Though economic signs are improving, with the unemployment rate and claims for jobless benefits at four-year lows, Vigo County’s unemployment rate of 9.8 percent tops the state and national levels. If voters here blame Obama for the bleak local numbers, he could lose the county even if he retains the presidency nationally.

Vigo, though, also contains the mix of labor and working-class people, alongside the college communities, several minorities and ethnic groups, rural and urban, and the poverty-stricken and middle-class, as well as some wealthy. Thus, as the record indicates, predicting the county’s presidential voting is never as simple as a single statistic. In fact, until Romney surprised Obama with an aggressive performance in their first debate on Oct. 3, the president appeared to have the upperhand here, said Joe Anderson, a Terre Haute attorney, longtime political observer and Democratic Party insider.

“If we had the election the day before the debate, I think Obama would’ve won this county,” Anderson said.

Ten days later, the forecast is less clear. The upcoming debates, on Tuesday and Oct. 22 at Lynn University in Boca Raton, Fla., may tip wavering local independents. And they are swayable, more so than any other town in the US of A.

“Vigo County resembles, in a microcosm, America, a little better,” Steiger said.

Looking even broader, “Desiderata” poet Max Ehrmann called Terre Haute “the world in miniature.”

The world should come to America’s microcosm in 2016 with a presidential debate.

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

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