Sunday, January 24, 2016

Does Vigo's bellwether voting status really mean much?

Previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 24 January 2016

For the last four presidential elections, I’ve been a sought-out “expert” on Vigo County’s bellwether status. Should you be unfamiliar with this phenomenon, Vigo County has voted for the winner in every presidential election since 1952 missing only twice since 1888.

Initially, reporters sought me and Professor Kirby Goidel because we had polled during the 2000 and 2004 elections. We were the first, as far as we knew, to ever poll Vigo voters’ presidential preferences Since then, I am not aware of any scientific polling of the county’s preferences. Nevertheless, journalists continue to contact me for interviews.


This year, attention to Vigo’s bellwether phenomenon is receiving increased and early attention. A documentary production company, Three Blind Men Productions, has taken up residence in Vigo to document the bellwether effect. Filmmaker Don Campbell will have lived in Terre Haute for a year. I’ve been consulting (unpaid) with Don since the beginning of the project. Politico ran an article consisting of little more than a reporter stopping by a Pie and Politics meeting, the Republicans there were for Trump, and the article declares the bellhether is going for Trump. WFIU did a story on the Politico story and contacted me for a response to the article. Last Saturday, my living room was transformed into a television studio as Bob Abeshouse of Al Jazeera English interviewed me for two hours for an early March news documentary.

Whether political bellwethers exist is not much of a controversy among political scientists. As far as I can tell, the answer is “no.” Nevertheless, Vigo County’s record is impressive and makes for a good story and a different hook on the glut of presidential campaign news. I expect there to be more reporters and all variety of political storytellers showing up because of Vigo’s bellwether status.                                                  
Questions posed to me tend to be similar: “What accounts for Vigo’s amazing record in ‘getting it right’?” My answer:  I do not know why Vigo County has such a record of voting for the presidential winner and I don’t think anyone does.       
Then I speculate on reasons why Vigo has such a remarkable record and respond to reasons posited to me by the journalist. A common one that is wrong, at least now and for the last couple of decades, is that Vigo is a microcosm of the United States. It is not. Vigo is poorer, more poverty stricken, whiter, older, fewer immigrants, less educated (despite four institutions of higher education residing here), more people with disabilities, more people without health insurance, higher unemployment rate, more reliant on manufacturing jobs, local ownership of business is more male, less minority, and Vigo is less urban than the U.S. is as a whole. According to information provided to me this weekend, Vigo also has more nonaligned voters than does the U.S. as a whole. Vigo County is not a microcosm of the United States and I doubt it ever was. 
Another posited explanation is that issues of America are the issues of Vigo County. This one is hard to address because one would need to know what the issues were in the campaigns and what the local issues were. I’ve voted in six presidential elections in Vigo County and based on past polling, the most important local issue has been “jobs,” pretty much swamping all others. When is a presidential campaign not about jobs? Maybe the candidate that mentions jobs the most is who Vigo votes for. This might make for an interesting undergraduate research project. 
My current “most sociologically best guess” points to the relative stability of the population in Vigo County. By stability, I mean there is neither a lot of out-migration nor a lot of in-migration. Being born here is almost the sole means of entry and dying here is almost the sole means of exit; thus, the social barriers and forces that separate us into like- minded “echo chambers,” jobs, religions, race, and social class, are muted when people first meet each other in school.     
For example, four people become good friends in the second grade and remain adult friends despite one becoming a union carpenter, one a physical therapist, one chronically unemployed, and the other a local business owner. The four, I submit, may influence each other with their different points of view. By being friends, they gain a better appreciation of each other’s views, in a respectful manner and, perhaps, as they decide who to vote for, all those influences come to bear on their choice.

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