Mark Bennett: Like Vigo, rural county in New Mexico reflects America's presidential will

MARK BENNETT

If Vigo County has competition for its presidential bellwether status, thank goodness it's a place cool enough to have once had Bo Diddley as a deputy sheriff.

Welcome to Valencia County, New Mexico — population 76,688.

It's a rural suburb of nearby Albuquerque. Motorists often drive through Valencia County on their way to Carlsbad Caverns or White Sands national parks, said Milan Simonich, columnist at the Sante Fe New Mexican newspaper. 

Mark Bennett: Like Vigo, rural county in New Mexico reflects America's presidential will

Valencia County websiteWide open spaces: This view of the mesa is part of Valencia County, New Mexico, which is also considered a presidential bellwether, like Vigo County. Valencia voters have picked the past 17 presidents, while Vigo County has picked 31 of the past 33.

Most residents work at a Wal-Mart distribution center, a metals plant, a packaging factory, the railroad, local schools or the prison. People of Hispanic origin make up 60% of the population, joining Whites and Native Americans. Its largest village is Los Lunas, with 15,688 residents. Wide-open spaces dominate its terrain.

And Diddley, the animated Rock and Rock Hall of Fame guitarist, doubled as a county lawman in the 1970s there, according to Albuquerque Journal archives.

It seems quite different from Vigo County, a less diverse, more urban college community beside the Wabash River.

Except for one characteristic, that is. Vigo Countians and Valencia Countians are almost equally flexible in picking their presidents.

Winning presidential candidates have carried Valencia County every year since 1952. Its streak of mirroring the nation's voting in 17 consecutive elections is the longest in the country. So, that New Mexico county is considered America's bellwether, right?

Not exactly. It depends on what measure is chosen.

When it comes to long-term presidential accuracy, Vigo County wins hands-down. Vigo voters have leaned toward the eventual winning candidate in 31 of the last 33 elections, going way back to 1888. Its only misses came in 1908 and 1952. Thus, while Vigo's consecutive streak only extends to 1956 — one less than Valencia — its record over the long haul outdistances all others.

That's a notable distinction. Swaying with America from Eisenhower to Kennedy to Johnson to Nixon to Carter to Reagan to Bush 41 to Clinton to Bush 43 to Obama and then Trump is indeed remarkable for the folks in New Mexico. Still, remember that Vigo County comes within 497 votes of a perfect record dating back to Benjamin Harrison's 1888 victory over Grover Cleveland. Valencia didn't develop its political flexibility until after World War II.

"Prior to that, the county voted Republican every year except 1936. [New Mexico's] statehood was in 1912," said Dave Leip, who crunches such numbers as overseer of the Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections database and website. "This means [Valencia County] missed in 1912, 1916, 1932, 1940, 1944 and 1948."

Both bellwether's bubbles could burst this fall. Vigo and Valencia appear to have not only swayed Republican in 2016 but have seen a stiffening of partisanship. That's potentially relevant, in bellwether terms, because Donald Trump carried both counties four years ago and maintains a base of support in each, though multiple polls show Democratic challenger Joe Biden leading the race nationally.

If that plays out, Valencia and Vigo could go Trump again, while the nation elects Biden.

Simonich expects the former vice president to carry the state of New Mexico, as well. "It looks like Biden is in pretty good shape here," the Santa Fe columnist said by phone Thursday. "I don't know where Valencia falls into that."

But, he added, "It has gotten to be more Republican."

Likewise, Vigo had a record 41% of voters cast straight-party ballots in 2016 and 2018, and Republicans outnumbered Democrats in that category for the first time.

Trump carried Valencia County by 8.6 percentage points in 2016, while Democratic rival Hillary Clinton carried the state of New Mexico by 8.3%. A third-party candidate, Libertarian Gary Johnson (also the state's former Republican governor), pulled 9% of the state's presidential votes, mostly from Trump.

By contrast, Trump clearly dominated Indiana and Vigo County, carrying both by 19 and 15 percentage points, respectively. Indiana's been a reliably red state since 1964, except for Barack Obama's win in 2008. New Mexico tends to be blue. Only one Republican candidate (George W. Bush in 2004) has carried the state since 1992.

Those are mere trends and statistics, though. It's the people's situations and reactions that matter.

Coronavirus is surging in both states. Daily cases have increased 128% in New Mexico through the past two weeks, while Indiana's are up 59%, the New York Times reports. In addition to the pandemic's affect on people's health and well-being, it's hammering the New Mexico economy in Valencia County and elsewhere. Valencia's jobless rate hit 11.2% in September.

"Unemployment has soared," Simonich said. "We're hurting. It's certainly troublesome."

If the hardship and illness translates into dissatisfaction with the Trump administration's handling of COVID-19, his 8.6% edge from 2016 could evaporate once Valencia's votes are counted this fall. Trump's edge in Vigo in 2016 was almost twice as big. And only one sitting president has carried Vigo by double-digits in one election and then lost the next — Herbert Hoover in 1932.

Vigo and Valencia could, once again, reflect the national outcome, despite all the polls, statistics and trends. If so, it's heartening to see two seemingly different communities think along the same lines. A place with mountains and mesas on its horizon and residents with rich Hispanic and Native American heritages, and a county with four colleges and legacy of labor unions, manufacturing and farming equally epitomize America.

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

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Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.

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