TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — Maybe Vigo County just gets lucky every four years.
Let’s say a majority of Vigo residents have voted for the winning presidential candidate in 30 of the last 32 elections purely by happenstance. Forget any theories based on political science or sociological factors. Simply consider the trend a mere fluke.
And, never mind the fact that electing such political opposites as Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama, by landslides no less, requires an extraordinarily flexible local electorate. Instead, assume it’s a totally random occurrence.
If so, the probability of a county randomly voting as Vigo Countians have since 1888 is 1 in 21,309. The probability of Vigo voters picking the past 15 presidents as locals have also done, just by accident, is 1 in 3,560.
John McSweeney crunched those numbers. The assistant professor of mathematics at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology accounted for the increased likelihood of one independent county out of 3,143 in the U.S. randomly matching the national outcome when a candidate wins big, with 60 or 70 percent of the vote, for example.
The math hints that forces beyond luck have turned Vigo County into America’s presidential bellwether — a status that draws increasing national and international attention every four years.
Those calculated probabilities “are compelling evidence that Vigo County’s propensity to vote for the winner is due to more than just random chance,” McSweeney said.
The math, he added, “proves that there is something special about the county that is not explained by the math.”
The “how” may be more definitively discerned than the “why,” in trying to explain Vigo’s unequaled streak as the nation’s Oval Office predictor. Once again, mathematics helps unravel some of the mystery behind how it’s happened.
Brooks LaPlante did the math and said, “The answer is really simple. It’s super simple.”
Twenty years ago, the 63-year-old “semi-retired” businessman and former Republican state representative began studying presidential elections and the Electoral College, the institution that officially selects the president after the popular vote. The history and statistics behind campaigns for the White House have become his hobby, and Vigo County’s bellwether role is part of that passion.
LaPlante discovered a statistical “bias” among Indiana voters in general, compared to those across the nation and in Vigo County. The Hoosier state traditionally backs Republicans for president. In the era spanning Vigo’s bellwether streak, from 1888 to 2012, the Democratic nominee has carried Indiana only six times, including just once since 1964, that being Barack Obama in 2008.
Clearly, Indiana is a red state.
In nine of those elections, statewide voters favored the losing Republican, and did so by an average margin of 5.4 percent. In Vigo County in those years, the winning Democratic candidates fared much better — almost 12 percent better — and drew a majority of the local votes.
One of the possible reasons for that ideological difference between Vigo and the rest of Indiana — the “why” — is more than a century old.
Dates back to Debs
Eugene V. Debs grew up in Terre Haute, held local and state public offices and then launched the American labor movement. An activist against social injustice, Debs ran for president five times on the Socialist Party ticket from 1900 to 1920. In 1912, Debs received nearly 1 million votes, a stunning 6 percent, against three men who served as president — Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.
While Debs’ political stances were just as controversial in his hometown as elsewhere, his crusade for the working class and marginalized Americans became part of Vigo County culture.
The fact that the county tilts more left than Indiana reflects that legacy. “Our heritage is our heritage,” LaPlante said, “and I think it goes back to Debs. Terre Haute is a very blue-collar town.”
That helps explain a leftward pull, but the ability of locals to favor candidates from either side, from one election to the next, involves more factors.
The demographic mix of the population doesn’t precisely mirror the nation, but the socio-economic diversity is broad. Minorities account for 12.1 percent of residents, compared to 25 percent nationally.
The presence of five distinctly different colleges keeps Vigo younger than the U.S. The 15,000 college students represent 14 percent of the county’s population. Thus, the media age here is 35.9 years, compared to 37.4 nationally.
The percentage of residents with a high school degree matches the nation’s at 86 percent. Vigo’s median income, $41,175, falls far shy of the national median of $53,482. Poverty remains higher than the rest of America, affecting nearly 20 percent of county residents. Veterans make up 7 percent of local residents, just a notch above the U.S.
Academics share neighborhoods with business people. Factory and construction workers live next to health care professionals and teachers. Farms live a short drive from the inner city. Nearly 200 places of worship dot the landscape.
“Terre Haute and Vigo County haven’t had any major population changes over the last 100 years,” said Fred Nation, a Terre Hautean and former aide to U.S. Senators Evan Bayh and Birch Bayh. He noted that observation is “a slight overstatement.” Still, the steady blend enables the county to maintain its independent presidential preferences.
Each of the different demographic groups includes some infrequent voters, and the appeal of certain presidential candidates draws those rare voters to the polls. That’s where Vigo is able to move the political needle. “Our ‘not likely’ voters turn out for the winners,” said Tom Steiger, a sociology professor at Indiana State University.
County differs from Indiana
The lean toward Democratic presidential candidates solidified here in the 1920s. The last time a Democrat did worse in Vigo County than in Indiana overall was in 1924, when former U.S. ambassador to Britain, John W. Davis, lost to Republican Calvin Coolidge. Since then, Democrats have received an average edge of 11.9 percent in the county above what they got statewide, according to LaPlante.
So, for a Republican to win Vigo County and, thus, the presidency, that candidate must overcome the nearly 12-percent bump Democrats typically receive in this county, compared to Indiana as a state. A Republican who wins the presidency typically wins big in Indiana — by an average margin of 20.1 percent since Herbert Hoover’s victory in 1928. Those GOP nominees who win Indiana by only modest margins traditionally lose Vigo County and the nation to their Democratic rivals.
The 2012 election serves as an example. Republican Mitt Romney carried Indiana by 10.2 percent, but President Obama won Vigo County by 0.9 percent and a second term by a 3.9 percent national advantage.
“So, it’s still here today,” LaPlante said.
Which brings us to the 2016 election. The bitter duel between Republican real estate developer and ex-reality TV star Donald Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gone up and down in the polls.
The most recent poll by Howey Politics Indiana and WTHR in Indianapolis showed Trump’s lead in the state down to 5 percentage points on Oct. 6. Of course, plenty of turmoil has erupted in Trump’s camp since then, too.
Statistically, Trump needs to win Indiana by at least 10 points to win nationally and, presumably, in Vigo County, LaPlante said. But, “who knows what’s going to happen in this election.”
Source: (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star, http://bit.ly/2dnpCou
Information from: Tribune-Star, http://www.tribstar.com
This is an Indiana Exchange story shared by the (Terre Haute) Tribune-Star.