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Indiana's Vigo County a bellwether for presidential races

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You won’t find much evidence of a presidential campaign here in Vigo County, on the western border of Indiana, with its table-flat farmland and small-town ways. President Barack Obama hasn’t visited, nor has Republican Mitt Romney. There are few yard signs and fewer canvassers working to get out the vote.

Still, the voters of Vigo County may know more about who will win this race than any pollster or strategist. In more than half a century, Vigo County election returns have been right every time, making it the nation’s finest bellwether county of presidential prediction.

Vigo County residents are a blend of Democrats with culturally conservative views that used to dominate the U.S. South and union members whose economic populism is more of those in urban areas.

“You balance those things out and you get a microcosm of America,” said Evan Bayh, the former Indiana governor and U.S. senator who hails from Vigo County. “You don’t have some of the highest highs and some of the lowest lows. That is why we represent the focal point of America.”

Like the national contest, Vigo County looks like a toss-up on the eve of the election. Obama carried the county in 2008 and won the state as well, the first for a Democrat since Lyndon Johnson won here in 1964. This year, Obama has conceded Indiana to Romney, translating into relative campaign silence.

Terre Haute, the county’s seat, may be more famous for the federal penitentiary that executed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh than for its Delphic powers in presidential races.

Since 1888, its citizens have voted for the winning candidate with only two exceptions, according to data compiled by historian Dave Leip, who runs the website U.S. Elections Atlas. Voters here were wrong in 1908, when they chose William Jennings Bryan over William Howard Taft, and in 1952, when they favored Senator Adlai Stevenson from neighboring Illinois over Dwight Eisenhower. Since 1956, the county’s voting streak has been sterling.

Tomorrow the county’s predictive powers will again be tested when it reports its results, usually by 8:30 p.m.

Terre Haute, French for high land, was key to helping Indiana earn the nickname “Crossroads of America” because the first national roads in the U.S. and railroads crossed through the town.

It’s “classic Middle America,” said Bayh, now a partner at McGuireWoods LLP in Washington, D.C., who has campaigned this year in Terre Haute with the Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, Joe Donnelly. “People believe in being self-sufficient but at the same time extending a helping hand to those who are down on their luck.”

In Terre Haute, the close presidential contest between Obama and Romney translates to a standstill that has local Democrats and Republicans on edge. The county voted for Obama in 2008 by a margin of 15.8 percent, more than double his national margin of victory.

“This year it’s the toughest thing,” said Terre Haute Mayor Duke Bennett, a Republican. “I could have told you that Obama was going to win last time; you could just feel it. This year it’s a toss-up. I am not seeing any energy for any races. It is unbelievable.”

Bionca Gambill, a Democratic activist, said she’s one of the few “crazy” enough to wear an Obama lapel pin on her jacket. “Everything has been so very quiet that it is almost an underground movement,” Gambill said before a Democratic Party dinner at the Idle Creek Banquet Center in Terre Haute. Four years ago, people were “involved” and “motivated,” she said.

Terre Haute’s zeal of 2008 isn’t evident this year. The county’s voter registration is down to about 74,000 from more than 76,000 in 2008 and participation in the parties’ primaries dropped by more than half, to about 15,400, this year, according to Patricia Mansard, clerk of the circuit court and the county’s chief election officer. “That shows a lack of interest,” Mansard, a Democrat, said in an interview.

Obama and his 2008 primary rival, Hillary Clinton, campaigned in Vigo County that year. “We were supposed to be a Democratic stronghold so we got a lot of attention,” Mansard said.

This time around, the county, with a population of about 108,000, isn’t such a popular destination. Indiana’s 11 electoral votes are expected to be won by Romney.

That calculation throws some suspense into Vigo County’s outcome tomorrow. “They are going to quietly go in and vote,” said Mayor Bennett. He said he “really” believes both Obama and Romney have “their base.”

What sets Vigo County voters apart is that they vote Democratic in local races and tend to vote Republican for the state and federal offices, rather than following a straight party line.

“I am a registered Republican but I never voted a straight ticket in my life,” said Robert Meissel, 78, a retired physician in Terre Haute who had just finished lunch at the Saratoga restaurant downtown. He said he kept it secret even from his wife that he voted for Obama in 2008. This year, he said, he’s going to vote for Romney.

Meissel’s lunch companion, Jim Cristee, also a 78-year-old retired physician, said he was still weighing whether to vote for Obama again. “I am still not sure what I am going to do about that, honestly,” said Cristee, who considers himself a Democrat. “I do not think it makes any difference in my state because it is going to go so strongly for Romney.”

He said he is sure to vote for “most of the Democrats” at the federal level, that is for Joe Donnelly for the U.S. Senate and Dave Crooks for the U.S. House.

Joe Tindal, 68, who sells sports memorabilia at the Meadows Shopping Center, considers himself Republican. He voted for Obama in 2008 and this time he would like Romney to win. “I am not sure that Romney is a total answer either,” said Tindal, who retired from working at the federal penitentiary.

Vigo County’s voting identity stems from a combination of a blue-collar community with an educational center as the home of Indiana State University, along with a mix of urban and rural, a fair representation of African-Americans and a nascent Hispanic community.

Terre Haute has a long union tradition, and has been home to meat packing, glass manufacturing and rolling mills. From its beginnings, with its Irish, Polish and Italian ethnic groups, the county had the “typical profile of a big city like Chicago,” said Joe Anderson, a local attorney.

Now the largest remaining manufacturer is a Sony plant that makes blu-ray discs. What has been lost in manufacturing has in part been made up by retail services, technology and education. In addition to Indiana State Univesity, with a campus in downtown Terre Haute, Vigo County is also home to the Rose Hulman Institute of Technology and St. Mary-of-the-Woods College, the country’s oldest Catholic all-women’s college.

Signs of political change have been evident in the county recently. For the first time in decades, Terre Haute elected a Republican mayor, Bennett, for two terms. The county also twice elected a Republican prosecutor.

People in the county are discriminating about candidates “and depending on that you will see a lot of swing voters,” said Representative Larry Bucshon, a first-term Republican running for re-election against Democrat Crooks.

Carol Cook, who has lived all of her 81 years in Vigo County, was surprised that she’s a resident of a presidential bellwether county. Yet, she said she has always split her vote.

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