TERRA HAUTE, Indiana (Sputnik) – Chances are you would have never heard of Vigo County, Indiana, but for a collective superpower of its voters. They have unmistakably chosen an eventual winning candidate in every US presidential election since 1956, puzzling political scientists, embarrassing pollsters and mesmerizing the media.
There seems to be no fully satisfactory theory behind Vigo’s bellwether phenomenon. It would be tempting to portray the county as quintessential America, the nation’s perfect representative sample.
But, first, it’s not, and, second, even if it were, this would hardly explain why local preferences mirror the electoral college decisions, not necessarily US popular vote patterns.
In the final days of the 2020 campaign when many eyes are on Vigo for clues on who will emerge victorious on Election Day – the Republican incumbent Donald Trump or his Democratic rival Joe Biden, some county’s pundits downplay its recent bellwether performance as mere luck that may be running out.
Max Jones is the editor of Tribune Star, Vigo’s main periodical, and the discoverer of the county’s election miracle. Sitting behind a desk in a modest windowless office among numerous awards for journalistic merits, he recalls how it all happened back in 1988.
“It was really by accident. We were doing some simple research about Presidential elections and how this county had voted through the years. The farther we went back, we kept finding that this particular county had had this uncanny record,” Jones says.
“We went back, and I hit 1952. Ok, that’s where it started, let’s go back a little farther. And then we went another almost 50 years before there was another [discrepancy]… We were all kind of amused by it. This was 1988, now 32 years ago, and since then we still have managed to keep the streak,” he continues.
It turned out that since 1888 Vigo has matched the vote of the country in every US presidential election except two, guessing it right 31 out of 33 times, 16 in a row. The only misses were in 1908, when the locals supported William Bryan over William Taft, and in 1952, when they preferred Aldai Stevenson to Dwight Eisenhower.
“1952 was the last time the county didn’t vote for an eventual winner,” Jones says. “What sort of messes it up and makes it confusing is that the United States elects by electors and the electoral college doesn’t necessarily have to match the popular vote. Twice now in the last 20 years Vigo County has voted for the electoral winner, but they missed the actual popular vote.”
Vigo boasts the second-best bellwether streak in the United States after Valencia County in New Mexico, whose impeccable record dates back to 1952. But the latter has more mistakes in the longer run, Jones argues. Moreover, of the two Vigo is an unquestionable media darling – perhaps, because New Mexico, unlike Indiana, mandates a lengthy coronavirus self-quarantine for outsiders making it hard to travel there.
How Magic Works. Probably
Located some hundred miles west of Indianapolis on the border with Illinois, Vigo is home to 107,000 people with over half living in the city of Terra Haute. The county grows corn and soybeans along major interstate highways, has solid manufacturing and four colleges, an airbase and the federal prison where Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was executed.
With all its blue-collar workers, farmers, unionized labour and academics, urban and rural communities, young and old populations, Vigo is diverse, but not in a way to fully justify a popular “America’s microcosm” theory, according to Matt Bergbower, Associate Professor of Political Science in Indiana State University.
“Many social and demographic metrics of the county just do not match up well with that nation when one looks at the US Census data. Vigo County is not as diverse as the nation, it is not as wealthy as the nation, and the education obtainment levels are not equivalent to the nation,” he points out.
Racially, for example, the county is far more homogeneous than the rest of the United States with white, non-Hispanic people accounting for 85 percent of its population compared to 60 percent nationally.
The scholar tends to attribute the county’s electoral flexibility, which stands out in a rigidly Republican Indiana, to a relatively even split of local voters along party lines and large constituencies with fluctuating allegiances.
“I suspect that [Vigo’s] party identification is closely aligned to the nation. We live in an evenly divided nation, and the past five presidential elections demonstrate that well with their extremely close outcomes. That leads me to believe that Vigo County is an evenly divided county on party identification,” Bergbower says.
He also suspects the county has a high amount of “fairly independent peripheral” voters, who are persuaded by “the environment and politics presented to them”, who skip midterm elections but turn out for choosing the President.
“If a candidate is nationally popular and persuasive, like a Ronald Raegan, then the peripheral voter will lean that way. Or, if the national environment is presented with terrorism concerns, then a George W. Bush reelection vote is more likely with these peripheral voters,” Bergbower explains.
Professor admits that polls “on some consistent basis” are needed to substantiate his hypothesis, but there are none in Vigo County – surveys are expensive and the bellwether phenomenon is a novelty of interest, rather than an election consideration for presidential candidates.
Both Max Jones and Matt Bergbower expect Trump to win the county, though by a narrower margin than whopping 15 percentage points in 2016. This means that Vigo’s stellar bellwether streak is coming to an end – if one is to believe pollsters who almost universally project Biden’s victory nationwide, of course.
“If the national polls and some of the state polls hold true and Biden wins this election, we think our string will be broken. President Trump carried Vigo County by a large margin in 2016 and we do think he will carry this county again in 2020, but not by a margin that he had,” Tribune Star editor says.
Bergbower agrees that 15 percent is too large a gap to close despite all 2020 woes and a stronger Democratic candidate.
“The 2020 race presents the nation with a national public health crisis, an economic downturn because of the pandemic, and a Democratic challenger who is well-known. For these reasons, I suspect Trump to have a decrease in the vote share for Vigo County in 2020, while Biden will have more support than Hillary Clinton. But I still suspect Trump will win Vigo County,” Professor says.
Both pundits sound sceptical about Vigo’s bellwether phenomenon. “If you choose to measure bellwether as who wins the presidency, and who is the most popular candidate in the county, then yes – Vigo is a great bellwether as the correlation between the Electoral College winner and the county popular vote is quite strong,” Bergbower says.
“However, there is another way to measure bellwether – to examine the popular vote of the county and the popular vote of the nation… Given that Trump lost the popular vote in 2016, and Vigo supported Trump by 15 percent over Clinton, one could easily argue that Vigo was not a good bellwether that year,” he argues.
The same happened in 2000 when George W. Bush won Vigo and the electoral college despite losing a popular vote.
“In the last 20 years, there has been a lot of luck that has kept this streak going. And because of that, we feel that this year is probably the year that our county is likely not to vote for the eventual winner,” Jones says.
Not so fast, Joe Etling disagrees. He has been chairing county’s Democratic office for 24 years and assures that this time the party is well-positioned to reclaim Vigo after 2016 debacle.
“I may be against every other person you are going to talk to, but I am going to predict that Joe Biden is going to win Vigo County because we are going to turn out the base. And the base is going to carry him in this county and that’s going to set the tone for happens nationally for Vice President Biden,” Etling says.
He offers an anecdotal evidence for Democrats’ reenergized power base compared to their previous lacklustre campaign.
“The best way I can probably articulate that for you is that four years ago it was somewhat difficult to get Secretary Clinton’s signs and campaign materials distributed. People just weren’t particularly interested,” Etling says. “And now we can’t keep Biden’s signs in. There are billboards throughout the community for Biden.”
County’s voter registration director Bob Lawson also observes a far greater public enthusiasm – a lot more people request and cast mail-in ballots, call to make sure they are properly signed in, ask for yard signs for competing candidates.
“We didn’t see that four years ago at all. It’s just a whole different feel to this election,” Lawson says.
According to his data, an early voting turnout in Vigo County has already exceeded a 24 thousand figure of 2016. In Indiana, voters are not required to declare their partisan affiliations, which makes it hard to gauge who is more active – Democrats or Republicans – until after Election Day.
“The only way to differentiate who is considered to be one party or the other is how they vote in the primary elections. If you look back on the last time there was a primary, there were considerably more people that were taking the Democrat ballot… in our county,” Lawson says.
The Republican primary, where Trump ran uncontested, was devoid of any intrigue and predictably aroused less interest than the Democratic race with multiple candidates competing for the party nomination.
A fancy building of the county administration, where the voter registration office sits, resembles a fairytale castle and suits Vigo’s French-sounding name. The real magic, however, happens in an inconspicuous basement of a Terra Haute mall, housing one of the county’s busiest polling stations. Voters turn out uninterruptedly there, though without long lines, a spectacle common to major US cities.
Some confess to casting a ballot for Trump, some for Biden, many refuse to answer. Almost none is familiar with “bellwether” term, but all are aware of the remarkable achievement which put Vigo County on the map. Yet upholding the streak seems to be the least of local voters’ concerns.
“I like how the country is right now. I like the fact that my 401k (employer-sponsored retirement account) has grown a lot. It’s important to me. I have no big complaints about how this country is being run today. But I do have worries about incompetent people. And I am against abortion, I don’t believe in murdering babies,” says an elderly lady, who introduced herself as Sally. “I am not going to tell,” she replies when asked if Trump is her choice.
Trudy Longest, a retired teacher, says that she casts a ballot early “because I might be dead tomorrow and I want vote to count.” She detests the incumbent and makes no secret of it. Her husband meanwhile is a Trump supporter and tensions are high in their home these days.
“My husband and I are in the opposite poles. We always have been, but it’s the first year that we actually have arguments about it. I haven’t hit him yet, but the days are not over,” she laughs. “No, when I see Trump on television, and I like ‘Oh, for God’s sake how stupid is that man,’ he gets angry and that has never happened before. Do you think I can cancel his vote?”