Portrait of a bellwether: This Indiana county has a history of picking presidents

  • From 1960 to 2004, Vigo County has been within 3 percent of the national presidential vote every election. It is considered one of the most reliable bellwether regions for presidential elections.
  • The Vigo County Courthouse, Terre Haute, Indiana reflected in a pool of water.
  • A “God Bless America” sticker seen on the window of a storefront in Vigo County.
  • Duncan McDonald, 18 with his date on the way to the prom. He will go into the Navy this summer after he graduates. “People don’t need to be so extreme. I think there should be change but they don’t need to tear everything and everybody apart.”
  • Vigo County, Indiana has had just two misses (once in 1908 and again in 1952) from 1888 on, perfect since 1956.
  • Chrissy Patrick, who just arrived on the bus from California and is moving to Terre Haute, Indiana, says, “I don’t know, I can’t get past all the drama. I’ve never seen a election like this. It’s a reality TV show not a presidential election.”
  • The Indiana Theatre marquee in downtown Terre Haute, Indiana.
  • Presidential candidate Donald Trump at a rally in Carmel, Indiana.
  • A Donald Trump supporter at a rally for the candidate in Carmel, Indiana.
  • Doris Patterson in Terre Haute on her way to church. “Get someone in there who will do something. I don’t know who you’re voting for, but I’m voting for Donald Trump ‘cause he can make this country great.”
  • Curtis Cornelius, who’s in the band “Just Us” in Terre Haute, Indiana, thinks “we need peace in the world. We need peace among our people. I’ve been all around the country and we need peace.”
  • Amir Ransom, a freshman at Indiana State University. “We pay too much for college. We need to have a college education to compete in the world so they need to make it affordable or free. We can’t come out of college loaded with debt.”
  • Sen. Ted Cruz making a retail stop with Indiana Gov. Mike Pence in Marion, Indiana.
  • Lance Dooley, 15 (right) says, “illegal Immigration. I feel like they take all the American jobs and I don’t like that they don’t pay taxes.”
  • Rocky Granata is raising money for vets. “I was with the ‘Occupy’ movement. I’d like to have peace. I’d like everyone to have shelter and be fed.”
  • Tim Asbury believes the most important thing is “keeping foreign people out. We need to build the wall.”
  • A fan of Trump poses in Terre Haute.
  • Tim Peell is concerned about “the economy. It’s been going down hill for a long time and the administration we have now is responsible for it. We need someone who is going to concentrate on jobs.”
  • A grain elevator in Vigo County.
  • Trump fans in Terre Haute.
  • Trump fans in Terre Haute.
  • Bumperstickers in Vigo County.
  • The term “bellwether” is derived from the Middle English and refers to the practice of placing a bell around the neck of a castrated ram (a wether) leading his flock of sheep.
  • Congregants attend services at the New Life Fellowship in Terre Haute.
  • A fan of Donald Trump.
  • Services at the New Life Fellowship in Terre Haute.
  • A man selling Donald Trump merchandise.
  • Signs in Vigo County, which is considered one of the more reliable bellwether regions.
  • Kevin Brown on his way to work in Vigo County says “immigration. It’s hard to get a good job because all the illegals have the jobs.”
  • Ryan Mihalic, a student at Indiana State University. He says, “Being a college student and comparing other countries, we graduate with too much debt. The next president has to change this situation.”
  • Baseball game at Indiana State University.
  • Jeanie Sturm is concerned with “womens’ equal rights. Womens’ equal pay.”
  • Abigail Irwin, a freshman at Indiana State University, says, “Education is becoming too standardized. They are cutting arts and creativity. They need to bring that back in education.”
  • Trump 2016 on the Indiana Theatre marquee in downtown Terre Haute, Indiana.
  • Marcos Spence, a rodeo cowboy says, “We need to care and take care of our vets.”
  • Ryan Hamill in concerned about “unity. We need a leader who will bring us together and I think Donald Trump has the greatest opportunity to do this since Ronald Regan.”
  • Sean Stewart is most concerned with “campaign finance reform. Reversing Citizens United because without that all other issues are not going to be solved.”
  • Early voting in Vigo County.
  • About the election, Kyle Hamilton says, “I don’t know. I don’t watch any coverage of it. I don’t really care.”
  • Frank and Ginger Bolin explain, “I vote for the man and not the party. I think we need to overhaul how delegates are selected. It should be based on the vote and not this super delegate stuff. I think we need to start over and make it fair.”
  • Derek Hescher, who works at the prison, believes “the middle class has to be supported. Right now it’s the upper class and the poor that are supported by the government. We in the middle class are being left out.”
  • Farmland in Vigo County.

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Statistician and FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver famously used “big data” and his mathematical models to predict all 50 state outcomes in the 2012 general election, somehow besting his mark of 49 during the 2008 cycle. The one he got wrong that year: Indiana, which went to Barack Obama by a 0.1 percent margin.

For all the numbers and polls and graphs that likely passed Silver’s desk in the weeks prior to that November, the famed prognosticator needed only to focus on a 403-square mile plot of land along the road between Indianapolis and St. Louis.

There, the roughly 108,000 citizens of Vigo County, Indiana, self-described as “The Crossroads of America,” have been a perfect indicator in 30 of the 32 general elections since 1888. They haven’t missed the mark now for 60 years.

“It’s classic middle America,” former Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh told Politico last year. “Small businesses. Family farms. Community schools. We care more about common sense results than we do about party labels and ideology … You don’t get the excesses of New York or California. We keep it between the 40-yard-lines.”

Why the success rate? Your guess is as good as theirs. The county is predominantly white, rural and poor, and while a large percentage of the 76,981 registered voters are signed up as Democrats, more than half of the people in Terre Haute and the surrounding towns have no party affiliation and only vote in general elections. 

Instead of staying on their side of the established party lines, people in the county are willing to listen to candidates and they’re willing to shift with the country.

The margin between Vigo and the rest of the nation has hovered around an average of only 4 percent in 124 years. In 1964, nearly 60 percent of the county went for Lyndon Johnson in his dominant win over Barry Goldwater. Only eight years later, more than 60 percent were in Richard Nixon’s Republican camp. In 1992, 19.3 percent of voters chose Ross Perot, right in line with the rest of the country.

This year it seems Vigo County is sold on GOP front-runner Donald Trump.

For many, the key factors are job loss and immigration. “It’s hard to get a good job because all the illegals have all the jobs,” Kevin Brown told photographer Mark Peterson, who asked each person he came across what their No. 1 issue was while he was documented the moments leading up to Tuesday’s primary for MSNBC.

Despite being more than 1,200 miles from the Mexico border, Tim Asbury echoed Brown’s frustration, telling Peterson that “keeping foreign people out” was the most important issue to him in the 2016 election. “We need to build that wall,” Asbury added, a ‘Make American Great Again’ hat perched on his head.

There are, of course, Cruz, Sanders, Clinton and Kasich supporters, too. You don’t get a reputation as a perfect American cross-section without variety. Some voters are focused on taking down big banks and making education more affordable, others on women’s rights, or gun laws, a strong economy and a better tax structure. 

“I’d like to have peace,” said Rocky Granata, a Sanders supporter who put raising money for vets at the top of his list. “I’d like everyone to have shelter and be fed.”

The people of America’s most prominent bellwether let Peterson into their homes, told him their stories and their struggles and helped him understand why this county, above all others, has been a near perfect predictor for our nation’s leadership since the rise of Industrial America. Click through to see their responses.

These photographs were shot on assignment by photographer Mark Peterson for MSNBC Photography as part of his on-going body of work “Political Theater” which examines the landscape of the American political system.

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