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Taking the Pulse of the Heartland

The people of rural Indiana have a proud tradition of supporting unions and fighting for their country. Will these good and decent people vote for Obama or McCain?

by
Ari J. Kaufman

Bio

June 4, 2008 - 8:37 am

Pulaski County, Indiana is typical only if you consider a “typical” American county to be 170 years old, have just over 13,000 folks and its largest town’s population to be 2,500. There’s not even a Wal-Mart in the entire county. Named for a Polish hero of the American Revolution, who died at the famous Siege of Savannah in 1779, the two main towns (Pulaski, and the county seat of Winamac) sit along the Tippecanoe River, named for the famous 1811 Indiana battle that preceded the War of 1812.

On Memorial Day Weekend, while driving a circuitous route from Indianapolis to Lake Michigan, I stopped here on one of those hazy, humid Midwestern days where the locals often say “if you don’t like the weather, wait a while and it’ll change.” I planned to simply snap a picture of the historic county courthouse in Winamac, but then noticed the small, century-old clapboard houses a few feet above the river, with their bucolic terrain, and I then decided to get a bite and meet some of the locals on a Sunday, as church had just let out at both the Catholic and Methodist Churches.

My question, and one I will endeavor to discuss in subsequent travels and discussions throughout the Midwest this summer, was: what are the priorities of these folks? Are those small town, moderate, blue collar, union Democrats who are socially conservative really going to vote for a far left candidate who supports, for example, partial birth abortions? They’re mostly Hillary guys and gals for now, getting her a big win here last month, but in the end, will they sit it out? Or vote for the septuagenarian war hero?

In speaking with some GM workers at Allison-Rolls Royce Engine Co. on Indianapolis’ west side, I found the age of a voter played a factor. The union workers with whom I spoke were all Democrats, but amongst the older men—in their 50s and 60s, perhaps nearing retirement—they would move to McCain upon an Obama-McCain matchup. The younger folks would stick with the party line and vote Obama, saying they’d “never vote for a Republican.” No one I spoke with at Allison, who has aided America’s armed forces by building air and vehicle engines since World War I, said they’d stay home and not vote.

Whether in tiny Pulaski or urban Indianapolis, I was now rather curious if citizens felt aligned with those so-called “latte liberal” elites along the coasts who overwhelmingly support Obama, yet, like the Illinois senator, may not necessarily appreciate the military, saving cash at Wal-Mart, or the centrist politics of Sen. John McCain? The media, who somehow could not find any soldier in Iraq that supported the former Vietnam POW, may believe the issues are all relative. The Pulaski Democrats are not likely to deem those Obama supporters as “clinging to their Starbucks and organic food,” as the city of Denver prepares food in “eco-friendly fashion” for the Democratic National Convention in late August.

Back in Pulaski County, we had to wait about 20 minutes for the local pizza parlor on the Courthouse Square to open at 1pm, because not only does this region of Indiana observe Central Daylight Time (Indianapolis is Eastern), but as in a majority of smaller American towns, businesses do not open until after church lets out on Sunday. This was not New York City, nor Indianapolis for that matter; it was the Indiana I enjoy and that the media is wont to depict.

Once inside, many visitors would have felt like outsiders—especially with our being a Jewish/Latina couple—but stereotypes are not always valid, and the kind folks served us no differently than they would any others. The place was fairly empty the entire time, as we wolfed down a good thin crust pie; however, I did notice two middle-aged men sitting in their church attire near the bar, watching the Indianapolis 500 on a small television above, so I daringly moved up to casually chat, identifying myself as some sort of a reporter.

After some convivial chatter about sports and the weather, I asked them what they did for a living. Both were retired, with one having worked for over 30 years with GM and the other having been a farmer. It was soon established that the former was a Democrat and the latter a Republican. In a perfect segue, I asked the Democrat whom he supported for president and his answer was “Hillary, for now.” Pressing further, “Carl” (name withheld) espoused the usual rhetoric about his being a “simple man” and a “union fellow,” thus his support for the former first lady via her “experience.”

The erstwhile farmer, in a jovial mood, nudged him and said to me, “He’s stubborn as a bull. He knows McCain is best for the country.” A few jabs later, I moved back to “Carl” to find out where his vote might go if Barack Obama was John McCain’s opponent come November, as most feel he will be anointed in the coming days. Taking a long sip of his ale, he looked out the window and said “Well, ain’t that the $64,000 question. I guess I just don’t know yet,” he confessed. “Never had a reason to vote for a Republican in all my years, but this may be that year. Seems the parties, at least for this election, have changed their appearance.” I was not sure if that was racial, cultural or what have you, but that was the best answer I received. The other fellow nudged me again and nodded, “He’ll do the right thing.”

Upon leaving the Square, you realize how common the set up of not only the 92 county squares in Indiana are, but the businesses. Washed out on the buildings are names of companies gone by—many of them jewelers and merchants, especially Jewish-owned. Northern Indiana was the setting for a book called the Middletown Jews, which was based in Muncie and depicted how 19th century Jewry made a living in the Midwest, while most Jews remained in southern towns like Charleston and Savannah during Reconstruction. The historic “Mail Pouch Tobacco” signs are often seen washed out on unused buildings and barn sides throughout the region.

Pulaski County is in Indiana’s 2nd Congressional District, which is very divided, having a GOP congressman from 2003-2007, but a Democrat currently in charge. The northern portion is heavily union and industrial, encompassing Democratic strongholds like South Bend. The Second District borders the most heavily Democratic of Indiana’s nine districts (the 1st, which sits along Lake Michigan), though as you move south into the more rural areas approaching Pulaski, Fulton, Cass and Carroll counties, the people become more conservative. Pulaski sits on the southwestern edge of the district, which borders White County, heavily Republican, and part of Indiana’s 4th congressional district.

Adjacent to the 4th is the 5th District, which moves east and south toward Indianapolis.

Cong. Dan Burton is in his 12th term there:

“My Congressional district is solidly Republican and with a great candidate like John McCain running, I am confident that voters in my district will overwhelmingly support him in November,” the Congressman from Indiana’s “reliably Republican” 5th district told me via email.

Stopping for ice cream at the local Dairy Queen, I found two young people with two small children. The dad, who appeared younger than I (mid-20s at best) had, coincidentally, served in the military, having returned in 2006 from a year in Iraq. I could tell right away that while he was proud of his service, his wife, home with the kids and the bills, was not quite as thrilled, especially when “Evan” (name withheld) had hinted about re-upping for another tour.

“The job ain’t done,” he said. “Every time I see the pictures of the Twin Towers on fire, I want to go back more.”

Evan is a big supporter of McCain, admiring the former naval aviator for his service and sincerity.

“I’d be proud to have him as my Commander in Chief, and I think he’ll win easily” he noted, perhaps reading reports like this one that mention an easy McCain triumph.

When asked about Hillary or Obama, Evan did not answer, just laughed and said “Ask my wife.” His wife is an Obama supporter—for now. “Evan” has been trying to convince her otherwise, but she “wants the troops home,” which might include her husband. I did not press further, understanding this was a touchy subject, and clearly a common one from my observations around Indiana the past two years.

To lend some background, while Indiana is the 15th most populous state in America, it has the 4th largest National Guard and more current National Guard troops in active service than any state in America. Hoosiers have served at disproportionately higher amounts than other states, beginning when more than 210,000 served in the Civil War. Of the nearly 1.3 million American combat deaths since 1861, over four and a half percent of those (roughly 60,000) have come from Indiana. That’s obviously well above average, and Hoosiers recognize that. Nearly 140 of Indiana’s bravest heroes have been killed during Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom—the battlefields Obama has been so reticent to visit lately.

All this considered, Jay Kenworthy, Communications Director for the Indiana Republican Party, is confident that, like every presidential election the past 44 years, the Hoosier state will remain red. Upon my return to Indy, he shared with me:

“We take nothing for granted, but are confident that John McCain has the experience, knowledge, and strength the people of Indiana want in the White House. As the McCain/Obama contrast becomes more and more clear in the coming months, many Hoosiers will not vote for Obama, a candidate who will raise taxes, hike spending, and retreat from terrorists. Barack Obama has run on a platform of change, but if I ask for change for a $100 bill, and you give me a five and five ones, I won’t be too happy. It’s not that you deliver the change; it’s the kind of change you bring.”

In terms of the preference of “Hillary Democrats” here and throughout the USA, Kenworthy believes:

“As will be the case across the country, a large number of Indiana voters who supported Hillary will come out for John McCain in the fall. Barack Obama has angered a lot of Midwesterners with his comments that we cling to guns and religion. He’s called coal – a large part of the Southern Indiana economy – a dirty energy and has vowed to tax it. John McCain understands the issues and Midwestern values, and the people will come out to support him in November.”

The state’s largest newspaper, which endorsed Hillary Clinton on May 2, had an enormous front page news story this past Thursday, reiterating Kenworthy’s claims about the “anti-coal” rhetoric in the Hoosier State.

The Indiana Democratic Party did not return phone calls or emails when contacted for this story.

A former California schoolteacher and Indiana military historian, Ari Kaufman is now a corporate journalist residing in Lincoln, Neb.
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