It was clear going into election night in 2008 that then-Senator Obama was going to become the President. Crucial states like Wisconsin, Virginia and Iowa fell to Obama with ease as he romped to an Electoral College landslide. Beneath the shroud of the networks calling the election for Obama, the 11 electoral votes of Indiana were placed into the President-elect’s column.
Much like Missouri and Louisiana, Democrats have two areas of multi-ethnic, urban strength in the Hoosier State. As in those states, they suffer from the overwhelmingly white, rural electorates which have been turning against the party in droves since the 1960s. Unlike the aforementioned states, Indiana had not been carried by any Democratic Presidential candidate since the Johnson landslide of 1964. Even Bill Clinton’s impenetrable coalition, which included a number of moderate and conservative white voters, could not unlock a winning formula in Indiana.
Obama’s victory in the state gives rise to confusion among many. Indiana is a state both unfriendly to modern Democrats and lacking in statewide ancestral Democratic voters. Given this reality, the 2008 Indiana win tends to make people double take at the Obama electoral map. But what makes Obama’s win so astonishing as we look back from our present perspective, and can the win really be considered as unexpected and staggering as the common wisdom dictates?
The perfect outcome
Obama’s victory in Indiana was powered by enormous margins in the Democratic centres of the state. Marion County is the home of Indianapolis and Lake County is the home of Gary. In these two counties, Obama net gained almost 315,000 votes in a race that he won by just under 30,000.
In Marion County, we saw an exhibition of the urban picture across the country; Obama’s appeal to liberal whites and African-American voters saw turnout exceed that of John Kerry in 2004 and later Hillary Clinton. Obama won the county by 28%, far outrunning Kerry’s measly 2% in 2004.
In Lake County and the surrounding Democratic northwest, Obama’s record as a state senator in Illinois also helped. Northwestern Indiana is firmly placed in Chicagoland and the Chicago media market. This helped Obama to carry his reputation and coalition in Illinois over to Indiana.
Madison County & the blue collar revolution
Outside of traditional Democratic strongholds, Obama performed well in swing counties like Madison. Obama’s 52-46 margin of victory was effectively reversed four years later by Mitt Romney. In 2016, Trump won the county by over 25%.
The case of Madison County does serve to highlight a unique strength of Obama’s 2008 campaign. Madison had voted for President Bush four years earlier and has voted for Republicans ever since.
But by 2008, the Republicans were forced to own all electoral responsibility for the recession. In a county where General Motors employed 25,000 workers, things were unlikely to bode well for McCain, who was seen as continuity Bush by voters. Gaffes regarding the strength of the economy after the Lehman collapse and the number of houses he owned also alienated McCain among voters with little in the way of economic security.
Madison County is the epitome of Democrats’ last chance saloon among white working class voters. The Republicans represented the elite that were perceived to have plunged the lives of workers into a state of precariousness. Obama, by contrast, represented new hope going forward.
Voters like those of Madison County were more than willing to give Obama’s new Democratic Party a chance based on their economic credentials. Less than a year later, the full extent of America’s culture war would begin to show its face.
2006 and 2010
This can be best demonstrated by the elections two years prior and two years after President Obama’s successful election to the Presidency. In 2006, Indiana Democrats were able to harness the discontent with the Republican Party over the economy and the Iraq War to win seats across the state.
Small-town Indiana, represented by the 2nd congressional district, gave Joe Donnelly a 37% victory. The more culturally southern 8th district and suburban 9th district also gave Democrats impressive mandates.
Four years later, these gains were erased in Obama’s first midterm after 71,000 job losses in the state since Obama’s inauguration. Since 2012, Democrats have never held more than the two seats which include their electoral strongholds in Chicagoland and Indianapolis. It has become clear that the material concerns that elevated Obama to winning the state in 2008 had given way to cultural sentiments that have made the state more and more Republican leaning since 2010.
Importantly, this was not a trend that was localised to Indiana. Across the midwest and the south, white voters, mostly of rural and blue collar backgrounds, abandoned the Democrats after 2010. But in 2008, many were enthusiastic for Obama’s message.
In 2008, white voters without a college degree backed McCain 58-40. By 2016, they favoured Trump over Clinton 67-28. This astronomical nationwide transition has been replicated across Indiana. This change has not just had repercussions in previously swing counties with blue collar populations, but also the rural vote margins.
The rural margins
The nationwide exit poll figures on white voters brings us nicely onto the most impressive segment of Obama’s Indiana performance. This is the element that has stood the test of time most poorly – rural margins.
The most striking part of the maps from Indiana in 2008 is the amount of light pink across the state. By 2012, much of the pink had graduated to darker reds. By 2016, the vast majority of the Presidential results by county were dark red.
For such a data-driven campaign, the Obama-Biden ticket harnessed retail politics incredibly well. Iowa is the consummate example of this. The ethos of the campaign was to go to as many places as possible, even if you weren’t going to win. By showing their faces, they would lose a county like Humboldt by 16% rather than the 58% that Hillary Clinton lost by.
This was a replicated trend in Indiana. By campaigning in the state, sending Michelle Obama to stump, and out-raising McCain by almost $2 million to fund a voter registration drive, the Obama campaign was able to harness rural discontent with the Republican status-quo that John McCain represented. As a result, McCain only won 19 counties with more than 60% of the vote. Four years later, Mitt Romney took 55 counties with upwards of 60% and with it the state. In 2016, President Trump won a staggering 77 counties with more than 60% of the vote as he cruised to a landslide victory in the state.
The type of Republican rural blowouts that we have become accustomed to simply weren’t possible in 2008 due to the fundamentals as well as the time and money that the Obama campaign were able to devote to Indiana as a result of their strong national position.
By 2016, Hillary Clinton was parsimonious when it came to non-tipping point states due to the close nature of the national race. The circumstances of the election and Obama’s wide-ranging appeal allowed him greater room to appeal to voters outside the traditional party base. This is the way in which he had the room to focus some energy and resources on rural midwestern voters. This in turn delivered him a win in Indiana.
Surprise? Or Predictable?
Given the political, cultural and demographic developments preceding and following Obama’s win in 2008, many have expressed awe at Obama’s performance in the state. Given the fundamentals of the race, I’m not sure it should be considered too much of a shock.
Polling before the election had a slight advantage for McCain. Most forecasters rated the state as leaning towards McCain or as a tossup. The RCP average of polls had McCain ahead by 1.4%. This is even slightly less than Hillary Clinton’s 2.1% lead in Pennsylvania going into the 2016 election.
Most importantly, the underlying trends that propelled Obama to top McCain in Indiana were clear to see across the nation. Obama’s campaign did what so many campaigns aspire to do; turn out the base constituencies heavily while winning swing areas and keeping the margins low in the areas of strength for the opposite party.
Obama had the ability to do this to great effect in Wisconsin, Virginia and Michigan, so why not Indiana? Obama’s strength kept demographically-similar Missouri to a 0.13% loss. It also created results in red states like Montana and South Dakota that were significantly tighter than expected.
With Obama over-performing throughout the campaign, it also made sense to devote resources to Indiana. The suburban shift that has strengthened Democrats in Georgia, Texas and Arizona had not yet taken hold fully and Indiana was a state with more demographic similarity to other states where Obama was showing promise.
It became clear early on that Obama had an opening in the state. The Republican Secretary of State, Todd Rokita expressing concern that McCain had a fight on his hands. Success breeds success and with the strong showing that Obama was poised to make going into 2008, the ability to carry that over to other states with attention and resources becomes far easier.
If there were an election today and Vice-President Biden carried Indiana, it would be a shock to the system. But in 2008, the underlying fundamentals and the national picture made it far easier for Obama to take Indiana than one might expect. In the six midwestern states that are at the forefront of the swing state map of the modern era (Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio & Pennsylvania), Obama over-performed the Cook Partisan Voting Index (PVI) by an average of 8.5%
The utility of PVI can be quite narrow, but in a region where Obama’s average victory margin was above his national popular vote margin, winning by around 1% in a state with a PVI of R+5 would not seem particularly surprising given the demographics of the state and Obama’s overall results in the region.
A repeat in 2020?
Outside of the traditional safe and swing states, both parties dream of states which could be put into play if national circumstances come together correctly. For Republicans, New Mexico, Virginia, Rhode Island, Maine, and Colorado represent states in which certain demographic shifts could point to newfound success. For Democrats, Kansas, Montana, Alaska, and South Carolina are states where Indiana-style anomalies could crop up with an incredibly strong national showing in 2020. But how likely are any of these states to flip?
Sadly for both parties, the race currently seems poised to take place on the midwest-sunbelt battlefield. 2008 was a perfect storm for Democrats; President Obama was an electoral juggernaut during the last hurrah for non-polarised voting. But like Indiana in 2008, if one party shows the ability to upend the current demographic wisdom of American elections with a blowout performance, don’t be surprised to see an unexpected flip under the shroud of the national news cycle.