Celebratory gunfire rang through neighborhoods in Indianapolis Tuesday night, as supporters of President-elect Barack Obama were elated over the election of their candidate to our nation’s highest office. Hours later, deep into the morning, while wild parties continued throughout America, the Hoosier State of Indiana was colored blue for the first time since the onset of the Vietnam War.
Perhaps in no other American state did the erstwhile junior senator from Illinois record a more historic win than Indiana on November 4. With due respect to Virginia and North Carolina’s southern history, and the other six red states Obama flipped his way, no state more decisively voted for President Bush in 2004 (60-39), then turned around to support the Democratic presidential nominee four short years later.
It’s now well known that, like the Commonwealth of Virginia, Indiana had not voted for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide. And as in Virginia, the race in Indiana was close all night. In the end, however, more than any other singular issue, the economy aided Obama’s triumph here. His racial background, especially in predominantly African-American Lake County, where the late returns erased a McCain advantage most of the evening, also boosted Obama, as it did throughout the country.
While the national media was surprised, many Hoosier experts were not.
Paul Ogden, a local professor who edits a right-leaning blog, even predicted as much five days prior to the voting. Abdul Shabazz, a local talk radio host and a McCain supporter, also saw an Obama win in the making, though he did believe McCain would prevail in Indiana.
Although following the 2006 midterms, when Democrats gained a congressional majority, I mused that this state was moving blue, I still believed Indiana would stay red in November 2008. I counted on Obama benefiting from a large turnout in the black community, as well as left-leaning places like Bloomington and downtown Indianapolis. But for Obama to win 11 counties that went largely for Bush in 2004? The economic woes must have spoken to people in the booths.
Barack H. Obama carried 15 Hoosier counties to John Kerry’s paltry four in 2004. Northwestern Indiana counties, with those cherished “Reagan Democrats,” propelled Obama as much as any demographic. These blue-collar industrial workers have been hit hard by the economy in areas like South Bend, Portage, Anderson, and south along the Wabash and Ohio Rivers in Terre Haute and Evansville. To vote for America’s most liberal senator, they must have been angry, as these folks are overwhelmingly socially conservative, Second Amendment proponents, and churchgoers, predominantly Catholic.
Part of the reason Indiana regularly votes Republican is that, unlike Ohio, Illinois, Pennsylvania, or Michigan, Indiana is primarily a rural Midwestern state with a large military presence. Despite ranking 15th nationally in population, Indiana has more National Guardsmen fighting the Global War on Terror than any other state. It was these folks and their families, despite Obama’s anti-war stance, that pushed him to victory. Being union families who work in the steel industry along Lake Michigan, they were hit hard by layoffs and outvoted the farmers in neighboring counties, especially in northern Indiana.
“I was even surprised about Newton County being close,” noted Chase Brazel, a state employee in Indianapolis, who’s a native of the tiny 5,000-person “reliably” Republican county that barely went to John McCain but went huge for Bush in 2004. “The northern part of Newton County is nearer to Lake County, so those industrial people likely went to Obama, while the southern part of this county is farmers, who haven’t noticed the crisis as much, similar to all the counties to the south who voted McCain.”
“It’s the economy, stupid” is a common slogan lately in Indiana.
The Indianapolis mayoral election of 2007, when unknown former Marine Greg Ballard shocked two-term incumbent Democrat Bart Peterson due to anger over property taxes, stands as a recent example of this sentiment. People seemed to vote their pocketbooks again in 2008 — which meant voting out the party in executive power, even if the congressional Democrats shared some of the blame, if not the majority.
Of the largest metropolitan areas in Indiana, only Allen County, home of the state’s second largest city (Fort Wayne), supported John McCain.
“This was a result largely based on money. Barack Obama had enough to have a presence in Indiana, and John McCain didn’t,” Jay Kenworthy, communications director for the Indiana Republican Party told me Wednesday morning. “It’s hard to say that Indiana is a blue state when you look at the success of Gov. Mitch Daniels and other down-ballot races. But Obama’s consistent presence on our TVs and in our mailboxes was too much to overcome.”
Gary Welsh of the influential blog Advance Indiana passed the blame all around, claiming:
Luke Messer [McCain campaign head in Indiana] made no attempt to build a statewide campaign organization to compete against the Obama juggernaut. Pro-McCain bloggers in Indiana felt that they were working alone in this state to boost the McCain-Palin ticket. It wouldn’t have taken much to improve McCain’s margins in the suburban counties and southern Indiana to have kept Indiana in the red state column. Messer didn’t even try.
With Obama making roughly a dozen visits to Indiana since May, while McCain made but one (Monday afternoon, November 3, at the airport) and Sarah Palin just three (all in the final three weeks), Welsh’s points are factually enforced. Sen. McCain seemed to take Indiana for granted until the very end, when it proved too late.
As the pundits claim, it is true that this election was no mandate for liberalism here in Indiana. Despite the Democrat-leaning Indianapolis media predicting disaster, the popular governor was re-elected, no Republicans lost congressional races, and the state’s fastest-growing and most affluent counties around Indianapolis all supported John McCain heavily. But as the state’s largest newspaper, which inexplicably passed on a presidential endorsement last week, boasted Wednesday morning, 2008 was indeed historic in Indiana.