Pollsters say the presidential election will come down to less than a dozen swing states. Indiana isn’t among them.
Four years after President Obama eked out a victory here in 2008, Indiana looks to be returning to its conservative roots. Most polls have Republican challenger Mitt Romney up by at least 10 points. So, what happened?
Karen Freeman Wilson still remembers when then-candidate Obama was a frequent visitor to Indiana four years ago.
“It was exciting. People were in line in the rain,” Freeman-Wilson told WBEZ this week.
Obama made lots of stops that year in places not far from his Chicago home. Northwest Indiana towns like Munster, Highland and Gary. In that campaign stop in Gary back in spring 2008, Obama told a jammed-packed crowed at Roosevelt High School, “I have to start off my saying this is the closest I’ve been home in five days. I was thinking about making a break for it. Get on the Skyway, I’m in South Shore in like half an hour.”
Wilson remembers that visit to Gary and folks’ reaction to it.
“They were excited about the possibility of change. They were excited about the President’s message and the importance he represented because it wasn’t just a history-making event,” she said.
Back then, Karen Freeman Wilson was merely an attorney in Gary. Now she’s the mayor -- but she doesn’t see much of Mr. Obama anymore. And, that’s OK with her because she knows he can’t campaign everywhere -- especially in places where he’s not likely to win.
“Historically, Indiana has been a Republican state. And I don’t think they have written Indiana off. I think that to the extent that there are limited resources, you have to determine how you are going to spend those resources,” Freeman-Wilson said.
Andrew Downs, who teaches political science at Indiana University-Purdue University in Fort Wayne, said what Obama accomplished happened only twice before in almost a hundred years of elections in the state.
“Since 1920, Indiana has voted for the Democratic candidate in 1936, in 1964 and in 2008. So, in many respects, all we are doing is returning to our tradition,” Downs said. “So, 2012 is not the abnormality, 2008 is the abnormality.”
One reason why the state bucked that tradition in 2008 was Obama’s unusually long primary race against Hillary Clinton. Both candidates ampaigned hard for Indiana votes all the way through the late primary in May.
“Part of the reason he was able to compete was because of that primary,” Downs said.
Professor Downs says the campaign structure that Obama still had in place later that November gave him an edge in the general election.
“So, in 2012, no primary, no structure and the likelihood of being able to win the state sort of disappeared rather quickly,” Down said.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story of why Obama is struggling this go-around.
At the Twelve Islands Restaurant in downtown Crown Point, Indiana on Thursday, the dozen or so people having lunch, about half said they voted for Obama four years ago and will do so again. But not everyone.
“I’m in healthcare and I am not liking the ‘Obamacare’,” said a Northwest Indiana nurse named Reina, who declined to provide her last name.
Reina is a Republican who decided to give the Democrats and Obama a try in 2008. She hasn’t fully made up her mind whether to vote for Mitt Romney, but Obama’s requirement that employers provide no-cost contraception coverage to employees - including religious-backed institutions - doesn’t sit well with her.
“I liked his personality. I thought I could trust him. I felt more positive voting with him,” Reina said. “I’m still praying about it.”
A couple of tables over Crown Point dentist James Popovich is having lunch with his two daughters.
“I’m a registered Democratic voter my entire life,” he said.
Popovich said he was stunned that Obama could pull out a victory in Indiana four years ago.
“I often thought the Republicans could run Lassie and Lassie could get elected,” Popovich said.
But today, he said, it’s Obama’s policies that are for the dogs. He doesn’t like requiring people to buy health insurance if they don’t have it. He also doesn’t like the government bailout of General Motors and Chrysler - even though that saved a lot of Hoosier jobs.
“He’s the lesser of the two evils and I’m really disappointed with President Obama neglecting the economy and not working with Congress and a lot of his rhetoric,” Popovich said.
Obama’s victory here four years ago was pretty much the last time Hoosier Democrats had anything to celebrate. Republicans are now in control of pretty much everything.
Obama may be down and out, but there’s still one Democrat who could crash Indiana’s Grand Old Party in 2012. Democratic Congressman Joe Donnelly from South Bend is locked in a tight race with Republican state treasurer Richard Mourdock for Dick Lugar’s Senate seat.
Mourdock didn’t help himself this week after a comment about rape and abortion during this week’s debate against Donnelly so the Democrat could have a real shot. But he won’t be looking to the guy at the top of the ticket for help, said political science professor Andrew Downs.
“In many respects, Donnelly would be at a disadvantage if the President did come in and campaign for him,” Downs said.
The closest President Obama has come to Indiana this year is when he voted Thursday on the South Side of Chicago. It’s still hard to believe that he’s not more popular in a state that took pride in going blue for him last time. In fact, almost exactly four years ago, Obama’s campaign held one of his last rallies before the election in Highland, Indiana -- on Halloween no less.
But this time around, Obama losing Indiana isn’t what frightens Hoosier Democrats the most; it’s Joe Donnelly losing the Senate race in a contest that seems to be there for the taking.