Elected Officials and Barack Obama and Minorities and Elections and Politics and Government & Economic Development and Government and Diversity

Indiana supports first Democratic president in 44 years

November 10, 2008
 The last year Indiana went for the Democrats in a presidential election, "Beatlemania" and the Ford Mustang both were sweeping the nation. Sean Connery played James Bond in theaters. Malcolm X was cutting ties with the Nation of Islam, and Martin Luther King Jr. won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Texan Lyndon Johnson trounced conservative Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater at the 1964 polls, then escalated the Vietnam War. That same year, Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law and famously told an aide that Democrats had just lost the South for a generation.

Now, 44 years later, Barack Obama is the country's first African-American president-elect. And Indiana's 11 electoral votes helped carry him to victory. Obama topped Republican John McCain in the state by about 26,000 votes, less than 1 percent of the 2.7 million ballots cast.

As Hoosiers thrill over their unusual swing role in a momentous election, political scientists are debating if it will continue, or whether Indiana will revert to being reliably red for presidential candidates.

Their views turn on whether Obama himself was the deciding dynamic, or if Indiana's changing demographics carry the most weight. If it's the former, other Democrats are unlikely to repeat Obama's feat. If it's the latter, Republicans must broaden their appeal to remain competitive.

"The opportunity is here, I think, for the Democrats to keep Indiana in play for quite some time," said Joseph Losco, chairman of Ball State University's Department of Political Science. "Indiana, like the rest of the country, is changing demographically. There will continue to be fewer whites and larger minority populations."

Indiana, like the nation as a whole, is becoming a multi-ethnic melting pot, U.S. Census figures show. In 1990, nearly 90 percent of Hoosiers were white. These days, only 84 percent are.

Obama understood Indiana's shifts, and capitalized, picking up a huge majority of both the Hispanic and African-American vote. Other Democrats, like gubernatorial candidate Jill Long Thompson, didn't.

But Obama benefited from more than demographic trends. Political observers say his campaign's organization and excitement played just as large a role in his Indiana victory.

"The Democrats—at least the national Democrats who came in here— ran an extraordinary ground campaign where they mobilized thousands more voters than ever before," Losco said. "If they're to repeat, they need to sustain that. I think it's possible, but it requires a lot of money."

Overlooked swing state?

Some political observers argue Indiana long has been a swing state, but that both parties have repeatedly failed to recognize that.

Indiana Legislative Insight Publisher Ed Feigenbaum noted that Hoosiers elected Democratic governors during four of the last six presidential cycles. And Democrats often held the majority of seats in Indiana's House of Representatives for decades.

"We've always been a totally competitive state," Feigenbaum said. "We just haven't been viewed that way."

But it took an unprecedented confluence of events to open both the Indiana and the White House doors for Obama. Incumbent Republican President George W. Bush's extreme unpopularity unlocked it, as did the nation's escalating economic woes, and the continuing toll of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

And because Indiana's Democratic presidential primary in May was hotly contested, Obama got an early start building his state organization. The candidate, a U.S. senator from Chicago, had established a statewide organization by early spring, far ahead of past Democratic presidential candidates.

Through the summer and fall, his campaign kept supporters energized by communicating regularly through text messages and the Internet.

That extraordinary organization paid huge dividends Nov. 4 in the form of record numbers of young and minority Hoosier voters.

As expected, the support was strongest in the Chicago suburbs of northwest Indiana. But his campaign also resonated with residents in much of the rest of the state.

"Nothing gets people out and mobilized as deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. Second was the combination of Obama's ground game and Internet game," said Bert Rockman, head of Purdue University's Department of Political Science. "It was just a total blitz operation. It was the old kind of Chicago neighborhood retail politics statewide."

Obama's own extraordinary political gifts shouldn't be underestimated, Rockman added. Few candidates have emerged on the national stage with such a smooth, eloquent demeanor, even temperament or electrifying style. And no future candidate will be the first African-American on a major party ticket. The historical significance helped push black voter turnout to record highs.

Campaign coffers also were important. Obama raised hundreds of millions in small contributions from new voters via the Internet. Feigenbaum noted that Obama's war chest paid for a glut of television ads and direct mail. Republicans estimate Obama spent more than $5 in Indiana for every $1 from Republican John McCain.

Obama's support extended far beyond the core Democratic base. In fact, one-quarter of Hoosiers voted for both Obama and Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels, according to Associated Press exit polls.

Like Obama, the governor ran a well-oiled campaign of hope, inclusion and change, noted John Krauss, director of the Indiana University Public Policy Institute.

"What they were doing, how they were communicating, and what they were saying hit the same hot buttons as the Obama people did. And they're two different parties," Krauss said.

"Daniels nailed it just like Obama. That is almost more significant in the face of the tide we saw nationally."

The biggest tent

Republican insiders already have begun to recognize the need for their party to evolve beyond red-meat base issues. P.E. MacAllister, chairman of locally based MacAllister Machinery, was among those who consider Obama's election a defeat.

MacAllister gave Republican Sen. John McCain's campaign $5,000, much less than the $20,000 he gave President George W. Bush in 2004. He conceded that Obama's campaign organization was "brilliant." MacAllister was disappointed that McCain never mounted a serious challenge here. Obama made 49 Indiana campaign stops. His last was on Election Day. McCain came here just three times.

"I don't know where the hell McCain was," he said. "You can't win by watching. You've got to get the word out."

MacAllister said Daniels, who won by a landslide, provides a perfect playbook for the Republican Party to draw on as it reassesses strategy across the country.

In the future, MacAllister said, Republicans must present convincing arguments that appeal to broader demographics, including Hispanics, African-Americans and other minorities.

"[What] I see lacking is a clear focus on what we stand for. Why is our way of individual entrepreneurship and responsibility more important than government handouts?" he said. "We are not clear on why we're better, and we have to get that across."

If Republicans don't open their tent, they'll find themselves increasingly marginalized, Rockman said.

He noted that Obama enjoyed a huge advantage among young and new voters. Party affiliation is usually established for a lifetime during a voter's first election, Rockman said. That portends poorly for Republicans. According to AP exit polls, more than six of every 10 Hoosier voters between the ages of 18 and 29 chose Obama.

Demographic shifts, both nationally and in Indiana, play to Democrats' strengths and Republicans' weaknesses, Rockman said. As Indiana's and America's populations become increasingly urban and diverse, the influence of rural Caucasians will wane. And candidates with Obama's heritage will become commonplace.

Rockman said Republicans still have a strong shot at winning over minorities, including Hispanics and Asians who have not aligned themselves with a party. Both groups have bought into the American Dream that hard work and education will yield opportunity. And, Rockman said, both have high respect for traditional family values.

But continuing Republican focus on wedge issues like immigration or creationism will drive them away. Hispanic citizens sympathize with relatives who want to be naturalized, Rockman said. And Asians, who often revere science, are baffled by cultural wars over evolution.

According to AP exit polls, McCain drew his strongest Hoosier support from seniors, white evangelical Christians and voters with annual family incomes over $75,000.

"The more the Republicans become a pure white-particularly white man's-party, the more they're going to have difficulty with the growing diversity of the country in making appeals," Rockman said.

"They've gone out of their way to stick their fingers in their eyes. That's absolutely insane. Republicans have to do something to get back highly educated and young people in this country."

Cashing in clout

Indiana is almost certain to be considered a swing state in 2012, when Obama likely will mount his re-election bid. And even if Republicans prevail in future presidential elections here, demographic shifts suggest the races will be tighter.

That bodes well for the state's clout in Washington, D.C., Feigenbaum said. He said Indiana's congressional delegation will wield greater influence. That could mean more federal money for Indiana infrastructure improvements and university research.

"Our people in Washington will have [louder] voices," he said. "We now come from a state that has to be given the opposite of short shrift."

But Ball State's Losco warned against overestimating Indiana's new position on the electoral map. After all, Obama has pledged to pay equal attention to all the United States, not just the red and blue ones.

Furthermore, Obama's resources will be limited as he faces an economy that may be slipping into a deep recession.

"Obama's made a lot of states swing states. I'm not sure he can pay any more attention to Indiana than, for instance, Virginia or Colorado," Losco said. "And from a practical standpoint, given the contraction in government largesse that has to happen in future years, there's just not enough to spread around."
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