Vigo County in Indiana used to call itself "The Crossroads of America" because the nation's first national roads crossed there. But given the past two dozen presidential elections, the welcome signs into the county seat of Terre Haute could brag about being "The Political Pulse of America."
Voters in Vigo County picked the winner in every presidential election in the last century, going back to 1892, with just two exceptions (1908 and 1952), according to an analysis of election returns compiled by Dave Leip and his Web site, Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.
Even more remarkable is Vigo County's voting record since 1960. Five other counties joined Vigo in picking the winner in every election since then, but only Vigo County mirrored the margins between the top candidates. Voters there were within 3 percent of the national presidential vote every time.
The nation has no better bellwether when it comes to presidential elections.
"Vigo County is a microcosm that reflects the electorate as a whole," says Tom Steiger, a sociologist at Indiana State University in Terre Haute. Steiger has conducted public opinion polls in Vigo County. "It's like a Petri dish. And there's a culture here that's stable. ... It's been this working class [county] with [colleges and a university] for 100 years, and that mix has been maintained."
Max Jones edits the Tribune Star newspaper in Terre Haute, and he cites the county's demographics to try to explain its consistent bellwether status.
"It may not be accurate in every way, but there's a fair comparison there," Jones says. "There's a balance here — of urban and rural, of cultures, of social strata."
Unpredictable Voting Patterns
There's a political restlessness in Vigo County that has voters picking both Democrats and Republicans in the same election, and switching parties and candidates from election to election.
"We've been running almost a 20-year period now where being an incumbent here is not necessarily the best place to be," Jones says. "We haven't elected an incumbent mayor in the last four mayoral elections. So that goes to show you that people may vote one way, but four years later, they have no problem turning on the candidate they supported before."
These political gymnastics stem from a long history of Democratic dominance, mixed with strong conservative beliefs on social and cultural issues.
"In Vigo County, socially conservative Democrats can be very successful. They have been state senators, state representatives, mayors, city councilmen. So they can do well," says Republican James Bopp, a Terre Haute attorney who represents state and national conservative groups and political figures. "And so from a local standpoint, we haven't seen the movement of Reagan Democrats into the Republican Party like we have seen in other places."
Guns, God, gay marriage and abortion have pushed Vigo County Democrats to vote Republican in the past two presidential elections. But those social issues do not seem to be decisive in 2008, according to Republican and Democratic political activists in the county.
Retired grocery clerk Judith McDonald illustrates the point. She voted for George W. Bush twice, she says, "because he did not believe in abortion. And [I'm] a Christian."
But McDonald is leaning toward Barack Obama. "There's just been too much other stuff going on. We don't need somebody else in there that's going to follow the same plan," she says.
Economic stress was part of Vigo County life long before it hit the rest of the nation. Factories have been closing for years. More than 600 workers were laid off in the past year when a paper mill and pharmaceutical plant closed.
Johnny Power was forced into retirement when the paper mill closed. He's the commander at the American Legion post in Terre Haute. "People are losing their homes. They're losing their cars, their savings. And so many jobs are going overseas," he complains.
Power has voted both Republican and Democratic in past elections, but he plans to "punch the donkey," as locals say, when he makes his presidential choice next month.
"They always say go with experience," Power says. "But I feel new blood is good."
Some Residents Still Wary Of Obama
Vigo County would seem to be Obama country, given the economic stress, the big population of university and college students (more than 10,000), the county's deep Democratic roots and the fact that Obama is a neighbor. He's from Illinois, which borders Vigo County.
But students have never voted in meaningful numbers, and some voters, including some Democrats, are wary of Obama.
"He's kind of young. He lacks experience," says Rhonda Fivecoat, a stay-at-home mom who talks politics while awaiting the start of Wednesday night bingo at a smoky American Legion hall. "I would probably vote for McCain, simply because I think he has more of an understanding of what the country needs at this point and because he's been through war himself," she said.
Fivecoat then cites Obama's "Muslim background — that's kind of scary," she says. "Terrorists have been from those countries."
Another bingo player makes a similar assertion. "I don't trust his religion for one thing," says Joanne Goetz, a retired quality control worker. When told that Obama is actually Christian, Goetz stumbles. "Well, I, maybe it's his background. I don't know. There's just something about him I just don't trust."
Without prompting, Goetz volunteers this: "And I'm not knocking [him] because he's colored."
"If [Obama] were a white man, I'd say he'd be way out in front here and nationally," says Fred Bauer, a Terre Haute attorney, Obama supporter and a veteran of state and local Democratic politics.
Bauer sheepishly cites Vigo County's history with the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1920s, the KKK was a powerful political force and elected its own slate of local candidates.
"Even though we don't have a Klan going now, and we aren't visibly bigoted, I think there is a lot of underlying sentiment that's anti-black," Bauer says.
Bauer is at a Terre Haute cafe for a weekly lunchtime gathering with a bipartisan group of lawyers, judges and political activists. Don Nattkemper served as chairman of the county's Republican Party for 12 years. He agrees that racism could be a factor in the November vote.
"No one will admit to that," Nattkemper says. "There will be pockets in our county that are heavily Democratic [where] Obama will run very poorly. I mean very poorly."
This volatile political mix makes Vigo County sound a lot like the rest of the nation. There were no public polls of Vigo County voters this year, so it's difficult to say how the county might vote. The local hunch is that it's as close there as it is everywhere.
C. Joseph Anderson is a Terre Haute attorney and longtime Democratic activist who prides himself on measuring the local political pulse. "I have less of a handle on it at this time than I have at any time in the past," he says. "I always kind of had a feeling of who was going to win. But I don't this time."