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Politics and Football in Muncie, Indiana

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Politics and Football in Muncie, Indiana

Football fans at Muncie Central High School (WBEZ/Ben Calhoun)

The country’s economic chaos is putting a lot of swing in the swing states in the Midwest. Chicago Public Radio’s been taking a road trip through some of those presidential battleground states. Today we catch up with our crew in Indiana. The Hoosier state is usually considered a dependable Republican stronghold, and polls there this spring showed Arizona Senator John McCain with a comfortable lead. But those numbers have changed dramatically, and now polls show a dead heat. Over the weekend, Chicago Public Radio’s Ben Calhoun and Robert Wildeboer headed to Muncie, Indiana to get a sense of why this race has gotten so tight. To do that, they went to the site of another crucial battle: Muncie Central High School, where the Muncie Central Bearcats football team was taking on the visiting Logansport Berries. In the spirit of the game, Wildeboer and Calhoun choose up sides, and from the Logansport Berries sideline...Ben Calhoun begins their report.

The stands on our visiting side were a little sparse. But look, to be fair, Logansport is about 2 hours northwest of Muncie, so only our diehard fans made the trip. Still in the third quarter we had a solid lead and spirits were high. That was when I came across Logansport principal Jack Gardner and his wife Diana, who were trying to explain the school mascot.

J. GARDNER: Felix the cat.

Okay, Felix the cat, which would make total sense, except that Felix the cat has exactly nothing to do with the team name, the Loganberries.

J. GARDNER: Uh huh. We’re the Loganberries.
CALHOUN: Loganberries?
D. GARDNER: It makes no sense whatsoever.
J. GARDNER: Shhh. Honey...

Eh... whatever... go Berries. Talking with Diana and Jack Gardner it was quickly apparent that both have been following the election closely, and they’re excited about what’s happening in Indiana.

J. GARDNER: Well it’s a great thing. We’re a competitive state for the first time since, I believe it was Goldwater and LBJ. That’s it, Lyndon Johnson.

To understand how remarkable it is that Indiana is now competitive, consider this. In 1964, Lyndon Johnson became the first and only Democrat to win the state since World War II. Talking about this year’s election, both of the Gardners describe themselves as reliable Republican voters.

CALHOUN: Have you decided who you’re voting for?
D.GARDNER: Yes honey, have you decided who you’re voting for?
J.GARDNER: [Laughs] I think I’m going to go for Barack Obama.

When I asked Jack Gardner why he plans to vote Democratic this year. he talked about the overall direction of the country.

J.GARDNER: One of my favorite words is trajectory.

When he says trajectory, Gardner says he’s talking about a lot of things: the war, the economy, government spending, the national debt, and he says as an educator, he’s been really disappointed by Republican policies.

J.GARDNER: The No Child Left Behind thing has done a lot of damage to education. The lack of spending in education has set teachers back, has set back investment in classrooms.

But, that’s not to say the whole Gardner household has decided to go Democratic.

D.GARDNER: I didn’t know you had decided, Dear, because we are both Republicans.

Diana Gardner says she’s also been frustrated with the Republican Party. She’s a 7th grade English teacher, and when Jack talks about No Child Left Behind, Diana quickly agrees. But still, she says, for a range of reasons, she’s still undecided, completely on the fence, she says. She says she’s impressed by Obama, but she has concerns about his level of experience, and more specifically his ideas on national security. She points to Obama’s statements that he would engage in more direct diplomacy with hostile nations.

D.GARDNER: You don’t just go, you just say, Okay, you’re breaking all our rules, but we’re still going to sit down and be nice with you. And I just get this feeling that Obama doesn’t have a clue.

But still, she says even with her concerns, even as a staunch Republican, she’s not sold on McCain. And she says she plans to keep debating her options,and debating her husband.

D.GARDNER: I’m just trying to read as much as I can. I have not made up my mind. And I respect his opinion tremendously, I will listen to that. J.GARDNER: Thank you, Dear. [Laughs]

From the Logansport sideline, where I’m pleased to say the Logansport Berries are demolishing Muncie Central, sorry about that Rob, I’m Ben Calhoun, Chicago Public Radio. Oh, man! 35-to-6, that’s brutal.

WILDEBOER: This is Robert Wildeboer. I’m on the east side of the field with the Bearcats fans, many of whom are clad in purple. The stands are pretty sparsely populated, though, as the Bearcats have been having a less than stellar season. SOT: Arrgh! Hit him! Oh they dropped the ball. But he picked it up again. They are unbelievable. As Ben so graciously notes, the Bearcats haven’t put a lot of points up on the board. Keegan Bronnenberg is sitting with his dad in the back row but a few minutes ago he was near the cheerleaders, sitting in the student section with a friend.

BRONNENBERG: They have this one cheer where they say we say Muncie you say Central. Well they say Muncie and he says sucks.

By the third quarter, the outcome of the game seems certain. But the same can’t be said of the presidential campaign, which is entering its final weeks.

SHERRY BARLOW: I’ve never been involved in an election where my vote really counted.
JOHN BARLOW: Our state usually is, it just has always gone Republican before so it’s just like, you go out and vote but you know the state’s going to go electorally to the Republicans anyway and this year it may or may not.

That’s John and Sherry Barlow. They’re both undecided, but with the election a toss up, they say there’s an urgency to vote. And the importance of voting was underscored recently for Muncie residents when the mayoral election was decided by only 13 votes. John’s having a tough time deciding. He says he’s supported both Democrats and Republicans since he started voting in 1980.

JOHN BARLOW: I like both candidates. I’ve always liked John McCain and I like Barack Obama.
SHERRY BARLOW: I’m just trying to decide who feels right.

A lot of people here say they’re undecided and say something similar to Sherry Barlow. They’re waiting for something to hit them. Or they’re planning to do more research. Or they’re waiting for one of the candidates to propose a sweeping cure-all for the current financial crisis or fix the Muncie economy, which has been losing manufacturing jobs. So that’s one group. But there’s another distinct group of people, all of whom articulate the same concern as Dick Hochstetler.

HOCHSTETLER: Well, you know I haven’t made up my mind but I think we need change. Hochstetler voted for George Bush in 2000 and 2004. He’s one of a number of people I talked with who are now swinging the other way -- people who are holding John McCain responsible for President Bush’s policies.

HOCHSTETLER: I think we need some different leadership. I honestly do. WILDEBOER: And you don’t think McCain would bring that. HOCHSTETLER: I think more effective leadership could come from the other party at this point.

That was the overall trend at the game: Independents and Republicans leaning Democrat, or at the very least, undecided. Nationally, those are the trends that have put the McCain campaign on the defensive. McCain"s recently shifted resources out of Michigan, essentially conceding the state to Obama, and moved some of them to Indiana to try to win undecided and Republican voters like Hochstetler. That’s the election, as for the football game? The evening ended with the Muncie Central High Bear Cats going down in a crushing defeat to the Logansport Logan Berries. The final score was 42 to 6, but what kind sports team is named the Loganberries anyway? Go Bearcats!

On a fall color tour of red and blue states in the Midwest, I’m Robert Wildeboer, Chicago Public Radio.

Photos from the game

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