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