Special Report

Waterloo on the Wabash

Why Hillary barely won Indiana.

By 5.8.08

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INDIANAPOLIS -- Barack Obama should probably send thank-you notes to Congressman Andre Carson; Carson's Republican challenger Jon Elrod; Gary, Indiana mayor Rudy Clay; and white voters in Elkhart, Monroe, and Marion counties. After all, they helped to make him the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

Without them, Obama wouldn't have been able to stymie Hillary Clinton's comeback bid by narrowing her victory in the Hoosier State to a mere 20,000 votes, and defy skeptics who thought the Illinois senator couldn't duel her in a state considered to be one of the most rural, white, and blue-collar in the nation.

Following up on victories last month in seemingly similar states such as Pennsylvania, Clinton was expected to defeat Obama in Indiana's primary, which would boost her share of delegates and help to make the case for the Democratic nomination at the August convention. In theory, it should have been easy. Indiana, 88 percent white, with an economy traditionally dependent on manufacturing and farming, was perceived to be the kind of Rust Belt state she has decisively won this primary season.

The state economy's fitful transition from a dependence on the Big Three automakers and other old-school manufacturers should have made it too blue-collar for Obama, a former University of Chicago law school instructor.

Clinton also had the backing of U.S. Sen. Evan Bayh, a former governor and son of a legendary senator whose state Democratic political machine is based in rural areas in the southern and northern parts of the state. Along with his own collection of cronies, Bayh, angling for a vice presidential nod, also brought along the state Democratic Party, which currently controls the lower house of Indiana's legislature.

Also in her favor: The state's reputation as a bastion of patriotic fervor. Its state capital, Indianapolis, is home to the American Legion and the nation's largest memorial dedicated to the military, the Soldiers and Sailors monument. Obama's Ivy League background and ties to the ranting critic of American foreign policy, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, should have hurt him in the state, allowing Clinton (a Yale Law School grad) to play up her blue-collar shtick in a most Nixonian manner.

Clinton certainly racked up votes in those areas of the state. She won all but nine counties. But she didn't gain the overwhelming victory that her backers and pundits were expecting. All of them failed to consider three things: The weakness of Indiana's Democratic Party; the ability of the state's black political leaders to grind out votes from both their communities and urban whites; and the state's growing economic and social diversity.

ALTHOUGH BAYH REMAINS a formidable presence in Hoosier State politics, his fellow Democrats haven't exactly been on a roll. The party fell into disarray four years ago when the incumbent governor, Joe Kernan, failed to capitalize on sympathy gained from the death of his beloved predecessor, Frank O'Bannon. He lost the seat to Mitch Daniels, President George W. Bush's first budget director.

The party then failed to pick up any statewide offices two years ago, despite the weakness of the Republican slate. Last year, its shining national star, Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson, was swept out of office by a poorly-funded Republican opponent. His fellow Democrats also lost control of the city-county council just four years after gaining a majority.

Meanwhile the party leadership can't even get its own top picks through the primary process. On Tuesday, its preferred gubernatorial candidate, school architect Jim Schellinger, lost to former congresswoman Jill Long Thompson. She won despite her minuscule presence on the political scene for most of the past decade.

Obama, on the other hand, built strong ties to key areas of the state such as Gary and especially, Indianapolis. Earlier this year, Obama sensibly endorsed Carson in his successful special election bid for Seventh Congressional District seat, which covers most of Indianapolis and Marion County.

As the scion of the late Congresswoman Julia Carson, the younger Carson brought with him the powerful, old-school assemblage of unions, black churches, urbane white liberals and factory workers who helped his grandmother temporarily displace the city's Republican leadership. Also aiding Obama was Carson's chief rival in the Democratic congressional primary, former healthcare executive Woody Myers, who also gave Obama his endorsement. The Carson machine, along with Obama's get-out-the-vote events such as a Barack-the Block party on the city's diverse Westside, helped the Illinois senator beat Clinton in Marion County by a two-to-one margin

The biggest surprise was a win by Obama in northwest Indiana's Elkhart County. Whites account for 92 percent of the population, college graduates account for just 16 percent of adults age 25 and over, and the median household income is just $3,000 over the statewide average. Despite all this, Obama won the county's delegates, 59 percent to 41 percent. He also won nearby St. Joseph County, which is 84 percent white and has a lower-than-average median household income.

THE BIGGEST MISTAKE by Clinton was in presuming that Indiana was like just another Rust Belt state. The reality is that it is a microcosm of the entire nation, with the almost all the same socioeconomic and demographic characteristics. In some ways, its combination of rural and urban gives it more of a resemblance to nearby Illinois or New York than Ohio or Iowa.

Home to three ports, from which its farmers ship white corn and wheat to foreign locales, it is a player in the global economy. It is home to the world's largest popcorn company; medical products giants such as Eli Lilly; and WellPoint, the nation's largest healthcare firm. It is also home to Purdue University, which has the nation's second-largest foreign student population; the legendary Notre Dame; liberal arts bastions Butler University and Wabash College; and Indiana University, with its famed medical school.

Among the rural burgs are mostly-black cities such as Gary -- essentially a suburb of Obama's hometown of Chicago -- and areas with growing Latino populations such as Elkhart County, where they account, on average, for 30 percent of the enrollment in its two largest school districts.

And then there is the paradox that is Indianapolis, with its mix of corporate headquarters, statehouse bureaucracies, auto factories, warehouses, farming communities, and suburbs. It is one of the Republicans' few urban strongholds and one of the state's most powerful Democratic machines -- as blue-collar as is it urban sophisticate.

Though the state's political and social culture is notoriously hidebound, it can also be dynamic and cosmopolitan. Younger voters support a wide spectrum of ideas, from gay marriage to privatization of government services. This made for the kind of conditions in which Obama can compete, if not always win outright. When Obama spoke on Monday at the American Legion Mall in Indianapolis to a throng of thousands, it was clear that many Hoosiers have come to embrace him.

Obama's performance in Indiana shows that he can be competitive in the general election. So Clinton will now have to either develop a new game plan or just bow out gracefully, as she should. But she won't.

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About the Author

RiShawn Biddle the editor of Dropout Nation , is co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB EraHe can be followed at Twitter.com/dropoutnation.