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Indiana, a Different Kind of Midwestern State

By Alec MacGillis
A few days spent on the campaign trail in Indiana confirmed one fact: Barack Obama's got a pretty good hoops game, which isn't a bad thing to flaunt in Indiana (or North Carolina) -- as long as TV clips of him flitting across the court like a 35-year-old don't have the unintended effect of making him look even younger in the eyes of voters worried about his greenness.

Harder to get a handle on was the answer to question that will matter most on May 6: what's the deal with Indiana? More specifically: why is it that Obama has an even chance of winning the state, when it shares so many characteristics with states that Hillary Clinton won handily, most notably neighboring Ohio?

The most obvious factor in Obama's favor would seem to be that he hails from Chicago, whose media market covers much of northwest Indiana, where many of the state's Democrats are concentrated. But the rest of the picture would seem to tilt Clinton's way: Indiana has its share of distressed manufacturing towns of the sort that went heavily for Clinton in Ohio and Pennsylvania. The lower portion of the state is full of Southern transplants who are far more oriented toward Kentucky than Illinois and can be expected to favor Clinton much as the Appalachian swath of southeastern Ohio did. African Americans make up 9 percent of the state, a lower proportion than in Ohio. And the state, whose primary will be open to all registered voters, is more politically conservative than Ohio, having voted Republican in every presidential election since 1964.

So what gives? Why is the state judged as a rare neutral territory where the strengths of the two candidates can be assessed without regard to clear demographic advantages?

The answer may have to do with quirks in the state's political landscape, say the Hoosiers I spoke with on the trail.

For one thing, the fact that the state has been such a Republican stronghold may hold an upside for Obama in that the state lacks the kind of entrenched Democratic machine that Clinton was able to count on in Ohio and Pennsylvania.

In Indiana, Clinton has the help of the popular Sen. Evan Bayh, a former governor and son of a senator, but he does not have the kind of ground troops that governors Ted Strickland and Ed Rendell had at their disposal in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Linked to that is the fact that Indiana voters are far less used to playing a pivotal electoral role than Ohio and Pennsylvania are. The state has not held a competitive Democratic primary since 1968, and Democrats long ago gave up trying to win the state in the general election. That may mean that some voters are taking their role particularly seriously, and judging the candidates by their own standards, instead of taking their cues from the local party apparatus, such as it is.

"Ohio is comfortable with being in the political spotlight. But this is giving people here pause to say, 'We matter this time,' and it may make them more likely to take a minute and get outside their comfort zone of what they know," said Ian Ferries, 23, an Obama volunteer from Kokomo who is headed to medical school in the state.

He also noted that the state has a younger population, on average, than Ohio and Pennsylvania. "The demographics in Indiana are changing -- it's moving away from manufacturing to biotech and business and bringing in a younger crowd that's more receptive to change," he said.

Ferries' father, Ken Ferries, is the former city attorney in Kokomo, and is neutral in the primary. But he argues that expecting Indiana to follow Ohio's suit based on shared economic grief overlooks the fact that Indiana is, in fact, not struggling as much as its neighbor. He objected vehemently to the premise of a recent piece in a national newspaper which portrayed Indiana as backward-looking and deeply resistant to change.

"The East Coast tends to see the whole Rust Belt as dead, but you've still got some people making good wages here," said Ferries, who now teaches political science at the community college in Kokomo. "This town isn't rolling up its toes and dying. You don't see the same level of, shall I say, bitterness that you do elsewhere."

More generally, Obama supporters are hoping that Indiana's brand of conservatism shares more with the Midwestern mindset of states like Illinois, Iowa and Kansas, where Obama has fared well, than with the Rust Belt mindset of places like Ohio and Pennsylvania, where he has fared poorly. For some of those voters, the impetus may come from Lee Hamilton, the former Indiana congressman and 9/11 commission member who is known for his sober-minded independence and who earlier this month endorsed Obama.

"I was on the fence, for a long time, but when the fella I consider the strongest Democrat in Hoosier history endorsed him, that was it," said Michael Mitchell, a retiree in Anderson. He added: "I'm not too sure this is quite the Republican state that it used to be. Things are softening up a bit."

By Web Politics Editor  |  April 28, 2008; 5:00 PM ET
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