Credit: Maryland GovPics

On Sunday, the New York Times ran a piece on the voters in Terre Haute and Vigo County, Indiana. The area has the distinction of picking every presidential winner since the beginning of the 20th Century except Dwight Eisenhower in 1952 and William Taft in 1908. And, yes, that means they voted for Barack Obama twice and also for Donald Trump. To me, that makes this community’s political behavior something the left needs to understand if they are going to diagnose why they’ve been losing support in the Midwest and in rural and small-town America, and how they lost a presidential election to a man like Donald Trump.

Here’s one clue from the article:

Its economy is struggling. City finances are a mess. Markers of misery — lower family income, higher rates of smoking and obesity, surging opioid use — are many. Its 108,000 residents are much whiter than the nation as a whole, and its demographics are changing only to the degree that the population is skewing older and less educated. It has benefited from government programs, like disability payments and a stimulus grant under the Obama administration that delivered a flood control project, but people here rail against Washington…

…The headquarters of Clabber Girl, the baking powder company, is a point of civic pride, along with Indiana State University, which has rising enrollment, and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a highly regarded science and engineering college. One old factory is being converted into lofts. But several people, when asked about the state of things, simply responded with a wince.

How did a philandering New York City real estate developer turn this relatively conservative area from Obama territory to Trump territory? I suppose we should also ask how Obama turned them away from the Republican Party (twice), since they supported George W. Bush in both of his elections. Maybe the people of Vigo County are contrarian enough to turn against the party in power so long as an incumbent isn’t on the ticket. If that’s the pattern, they’ll be voting for Trump again.

Yet the reporting for this article indicates that they have a lot of buyer’s remorse about Trump already, and that it could become Democratic territory in 2020. What makes this part of Indiana interesting is its propensity to swing back and forth between the two major parties, but the general drift toward Trump in largely white communities has been evident almost everywhere.

The centrality of immigration and racial issues is seen as a main culprit by almost everyone, including the architects of Trump’s campaign. But we still need to account for the fact that Vigo County voted for a black candidate over a white man two times. Perhaps it’s easier to identify what didn’t work for the Democrats than what did work for Trump. The massive amount of attention that was rightly placed on the Access Hollywood tape in October did not convince the people of Terre Haute that Trump is a sexual predator. Or, if it did, they seemed to still prefer him to Hillary Clinton for some variety of reasons. Likewise, Trump’s uncivil behavior throughout the campaign didn’t turn them against him, nor did countless exposés of his failed and fraudulent business practices. His transparent lack of knowledge wasn’t enough. The fact that numerous prominent Republican politicians and pundits refused to endorse Trump didn’t sway them. The fact that almost no editorial board of a newspaper in the entire country supported Trump did not matter. Trump’s poor debate performances weren’t a substantial problem for him.

As long as the focus was on Trump, it seemed that he was capable of weathering almost any bad news or coverage. What mattered more, apparently, was that he was offering something different from a status quo that is still making the people of Vigo County wince when they’re asked to talk about it. I don’t think people see Trump as particularly credible on virtually anything, but he was more credible than Hillary Clinton when it came to satisfying the desire to change things up dramatically.

Now, a lot of people mock the idea that economic hardship had more to do with the election results than racism. Conversely, the Democrats’ fixation on “identity politics,” however defined, is frequently blamed for turning off Obama voters in communities like Vigo County. I think both of these arguments are basically dead ends. What we know for sure is that protesting Trump’s racism didn’t have the effect we had the right to expect it would. We know that he wasn’t wrong-footed by his positions on transgender bathrooms or Muslim and Latino immigration or his blind support for police violence. We know women didn’t turn against him in big enough numbers even after numerous victims of his sexual predation came forward.

We tend to get bogged down in these facts and attack the communities who overlooked all these signs. We want to write off any voters who would support a candidate after all the evidence that was presented against him. But Vigo County was Obama territory. It could easily become Democratic territory again. And, to be honest, the things the left supports on the cultural or “identity” plane weren’t much different in 2016 than they had been in 2012 or even 2008. The answer isn’t going to be magically found by pandering to cultural conservatism.

What’s needed is a focus on the things that make people wince. We tend to wince at sexism and racism, and we expect everyone else to have a similar reaction and fault them if they do not. I can’t fault us for that, but I think the evidence is in that it isn’t a winning political message in a lot of the country. I also don’t think it’s a brilliant idea to assume that the Democratic Party can just tinker with their message or focus on mobilizing their base. What the people of Vigo County need and want is a set of fresh ideas that haven’t been tried before. The reason I’ve written about anti-monopoly and antitrust issues is because it’s something new in the sense that we’ve gotten away from it for so long that it will seem fresh. The national party can do whatever it wants, but Democrats running in Obama/Trump areas need to have something new to offer.

Does this guy sound like he read my piece How to Win Rural Voters Without Losing Liberal Values?

Stephen Webber, the chairman of Missouri’s Democrats, told a Midwestern caucus meeting [at the Las Vegas DNC conference] that his party had developed a message for rural counties “where we used to win 60 percent of the vote and now barely win 15 percent” — a populist campaign against corporate farming conglomerates.

That’s the kind of thing I want to see. Salvation doesn’t lie with selling out our base or compromising on our values or in pandering to the prejudices of people who have supported us in the recent past. We don’t need to turn a blind eye to racism or sexism. But we do need to find out what is making people wince and come up with new, credible ideas to address their communities’ problems.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at