Sunday, November 9, 2008

Why did Indiana go blue? (Part 1)

One of the more stunning aspects of the presidential election returns came around 2:00 AM on Wednesday, when networks began calling Indiana for Barack Obama. Having grown up in western Indiana, I learned at a young age that Indiana always chose Republican candidates for president, despite the fact that Democrats are quite competitive at the state level. (The last Democratic presidential candidate to buck this trend was Lyndon Johnson in 1964.) This year was seemingly going to be no different.

So why did Indiana go blue? It's a bit early to ascertain a thorough answer, but at least two reasons are suggestive. The first emerges from Walter Shapiro's article "Turning Indiana Blue," which Salon published just over two weeks before the election. As Shapiro writes:

"...if Obama wins the state, more than anything it will be due to the best voter-contact operation Indiana has ever seen. Even Murray Clark, the Indiana Republican chairman, says with grudging admiration in his voice, 'Obama's done these things right. That's how he nearly beat Hillary in the primary...' "

"Finding Democratic voters in fast-growing suburban Hamilton County, just north of Indianapolis, seems as unlikely as spying a herd of giraffes frolicking in a mall parking lot. In 2004, Bush rolled up the kind of victory in Hamilton County that Vladimir Putin might envy--obliterating Kerry by 51,000 votes with a 74 to 25 percent margin. Yet Obama has two storefront offices in the county (among 44 offices statewide) and is running an aggressive canvassing operation. This unusual commitment of resources is not lost on the Republicans. 'Obama's campaign has targeted the Doughnut Counties'--local lingo for the eight counties that ring Indianapolis--'particularly Hamilton County,' says Clark, the GOP chairman. 'They are targeting upscale voters, particularly women.' "

And Obama's strategy of campaigning in McCain's political backyard paid off. CNN's county-by-county return map shows that Obama lost Hamilton County by less than 29,000 votes (or 38 to 61 percent). Considering that he won Indiana by less than 26,000 votes, this was an important tactical victory, and an example of what influential Indiana political blogger Brian Howey calls "the greatest political campaign in American history that played out vividly amidst Hoosier cities, towns, taverns and farms." Howey writes in a later article that Obama improved upon John Kerry's 2004 tallies in several other Republican counties as well, thanks to "an audacious, successful game plan that spread the field [in other words, across the entire state]." It also helped that Obama had huge margins in arguably the two most important Democratic counties: Lake County, next to Chicago (67-32, with a 71,000 vote difference), and Indianapolis' Marion County (64 percent, with a 105,000 vote difference).

Next post: Why the evangelical vote was so important.

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