Monday, November 28, 2011

Hoosier Buddy?

In the ongoing countdown to next year's election, there are 344 days to go until the votes are counted on Nov. 6, 2012.

That's 49 weeks from tomorrow.

Just think of all the things that will be determined — one way or another — between now and that night 49 weeks from tomorrow night.

In spite of that, though, there are a few things that can be taken for granted.

It is generally assumed, for example, that Barack Obama will receive his party's nomination. No challenger has emerged; in fact, no Democrat, prominent or otherwise, is even said to be considering a challenge.

Diehard Democrats have been saying for months that the absence of competition for the nomination is a good sign. Jimmy Carter was challenged for his party's nomination in 1980, they have pointed out, and went on to lose the general election. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, was not seriously challenged for his party's nomination in 1996 — and easily won a second term.

No challenger means Obama doesn't have to spend campaign resources on his pursuit of the nomination. He can hold the funds for the fall campaign, when he can concentrate on winning the battleground states and the states that he carried last time that Democrats rarely win — and he can start slinging mud, as an incumbent with an unemployment rate as high as the one in America today must (and, inevitably, will) do, at whoever is leading in the polls this week.

That wasn't Lyndon Johnson's problem. LBJ's nomination was never in doubt, but he did have some modest opposition. Primaries didn't play the pivotal role in the nominating process in 1964 that they do today, but there were a few, and Alabama Gov. George Wallace challenged Johnson — and did astonishingly well — in some primaries in Northern states.

In those primaries, historian Theodore H. White wrote in "The Making of the President 1964," Wallace sought "to test whether racism could magnetize votes in the North as well as the South."

In Indiana, Wisconsin and Maryland, Wallace got his answer.
"Wallace astounded political observers not so much by the percentage of votes he could draw for simple bigotry (34 percent of the Democratic vote in Wisconsin, 30 percent in Indiana, 43 percent in Maryland) as by the groups from whom he drew his votes. For he demonstrated pragmatically and for the first time the fear that white working–class Americans have of Negroes. ... in the mill town of Gary, Indiana, he actually carried every white precinct in the city among Democratic voters ..."

Theodore H. White
The Making of the President 1964

Barring the most wildly improbable of developments, Obama will be the Democrats' standard bearer in 2012. No suspense there.

But the identity of Obama's opponent remains a mystery, and no one knows what the economy will be like when people go to the polls next fall.

So there is some suspense as America prepares for the start of the primary/caucus season.

The conventional wisdom is that people make up their minds about a presidency, not necessarily a president, about six months before an election. And, while today's Democrats would like to think that people will make their voting decision based on whether they like Obama on a personal level, the fact is that liking an incumbent and approving of the job he has done are two entirely different things.

It does help if voters like the president, and survey after survey shows that Americans tend to like Obama personally. But those same surveys show that most Americans think the country is going in the wrong direction.

That can be decisive in places where the outcome is in doubt — in the modern–day battleground states, where many voters may feel torn between the fact that they like Obama but don't like where they think the country is headed.

For many reasons, I feel safe in predicting that the Republican nominee — whoever that turns out to be — will win Indiana next year.

Indiana was an unexpected bonus for Democrats on Election Day 2008. The state votes for a Democrat about once in a generation — if that. Obama's victory there was the first for a Democratic presidential nominee in 44 years.

If Johnson hadn't carried Indiana in 1964, Obama would have been the first Democrat in his lifetime to carry the state.

LBJ was the only Democrat to carry Indiana in the lifetime of Obama's mother. She was born in 1942, and the last Democrat to carry Indiana before Johnson was Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936.

Indiana voted for FDR in 1932, too. It took something as big as the Great Depression to get Indiana to vote Democratic in consecutive elections. Before the 1930s, the last time Indiana voted Democratic in consecutive elections was in the years just before the outbreak of the Civil War — in the middle of the 19th century.

Indiana did vote Democratic four times in the 20th century. In addition to LBJ's 1964 landslide and FDR's landslides of 1932 and 1936, Woodrow Wilson won the state in 1912 — when Republicans were divided between President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt.

If the Republicans had been united that year and either Taft or Roosevelt had been their nominee, their share of the vote combined would have exceeded Wilson's by nearly 35,000 out of more than 650,000 cast — a narrow margin, sure, but more substantial than the margin in Indiana for the Republican running against Wilson when he sought re–election four years later.

When he wrote about Johnson's landslide nearly 50 years ago, White also wrote about patterns he detected in the election returns, including the "ripples and bubbles of protest" spawned by the civil rights movement and the general racial unrest across the nation.

Such "ripples and bubbles," White wrote, were so hard to spot that one was forced to "pore over charts to find them." But he did observe evidence that the Democrats, as LBJ himself would say the following year, were handing the South to the Republicans for half a century.

The South, White wrote, showed "significant" declines in Democratic support, and those declines clearly continued in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, through good years and bad years for both parties.

I guess it wasn't hard to identify that trend in the South in 1964. Five states in the Deep South voted Republican — some heavily — and the ones that remained in the Democratic column, as they had for generations, did so by much narrower margins than ever before, even when popular Republicans like Teddy Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower were on the ballot.

Almost no other states, even traditionally Republican ones, voted against Johnson in 1964. Nevertheless, White identified some ethnic "ripples and bubbles" in some northern states like Indiana — "Polish working–class wards" where the Republicans "managed to shave the Democratic percentages" in spite of the fact that it was an overwhelmingly Democratic year.

White acknowledged that he could not determine "whether this was an echo of backlash" or "ethnic identification" with the Republican running mate's Polish–American wife.

But the next 10 presidential elections suggested that Indiana's support for the Democrat in 1964 was an aberration, not the start of political realignment there.

And there is no reason to believe that Obama's victory there in 2008 was a realignment, either. His coattails weren't just short in Indiana, they were nonexistent. While Obama was winning a squeaker (50% to 49%) against John McCain with the help of young and minority voters in the cities, the Republican governor was being re–elected with 58% of the vote.

In 2010, Republican Dan Coats, who spent a decade in the U.S. Senate previously, was elected the state's junior senator with 55% of the vote. Six of the state's nine House districts elected Republicans, most of them with more than 60% of the vote.

Indiana&apo;s roots are planted deep in Republican soil, and its support for the Democrat in 2008 was an aberration. Any state–by–state prediction for 2012 that suggests that Obama will retain Indiana can be dismissed as unreliable.

On the evening of Nov. 6, 2012, Indiana is likely to be one of the first states projected for the Republican nominee.

You can take it to the bank.

1 comment:

Steve Stern said...

For the record, my Dad, Ben Stern, ran the campaign in Indiana that got the state's first Democratic Senator, Fred Van Nuys, re-elected. Dad earlier led the Pulitzer Team at the Indianapolis Times (RIP) responsible for connecting the Governor, DC Stevenson to the KKK. It's an interesting state, politicly.