State of the States: Indiana

During his 2020 primary campaign, (which now seems 1,000 years ago) Pete Buttigieg claimed electoral legitimacy because he won re-election being openly gay in “Mike Pence’s Indiana.” It’s a good setup. Pence isn’t exactly gay-friendly. Indiana is red. It’s a great David v. Goliath tale.

It was also some quality political prestidigitation. South Bend does not even slightly resemble the rest of Indiana. It’s heavily Democratic. And Pence was not a popular governor. His selection by Donald Trump allowed him to ditch a difficult re-election contest.

He’d managed the feat of offending both sides in the debate, passage, and aftermath of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which made it easier for businesses to pass on serving gay customers. Signing the bill pissed off the left. Signing a revision that gutted most of the provisions, after facing the threat of significant boycotts from big national businesses and organizations, angered the Christian Right.

Yes, Indiana is red. And in 2016, it was the reddest ever (R+21.) But not to the point where it doesn’t care what the rest of the country thinks, especially if there are financial consequences. When the GOP went a little far with their 2012 Senate nominee, a Democrat took the seat. Which he then lost in 2018. Think of the state as clearly leaning right, but unlike Wyoming or West Virginia, still exercising some Midwestern moderation once in a while. They did (very narrowly) vote for Barack Obama in 2008.

2016 Results: Donald Trump 57.2%, Hillary Clinton 37.9%, Gary Johnson 4.9% (R+21)

Trump definitely did well. He won by 19 points. Hillary finished below 40% in a state Obama won once. But Gary Johnson managed almost 5%. There was some residual Trump wariness.

2020 Polls: Trump is leading by an average of 14.6% and the polls are consistent. This is down a bit from 2016, but it’s more due to undecided voters. Joe Biden is yet to clear 40%. Compared to the rest of the country, Indiana is still R+21.

Key Historical Shifts: One. Ever. After the 1816 and 1820 elections, where the state legislature made the choices, Indiana has experienced two political phases, each lasting about a century.

Phase One (1824-1928): Slightly Democratic leaning swing state. From 1844 to 1900, Indiana was within 3 points of the national popular vote all but twice. Republican or Whig Indianans were on the ballot four times in the 19th century and had an edge each time. Otherwise, Democrats were in the driver’s seat. Except for picking Republican Charles Evans Hughes in 1916, if Indiana was voting for the GOP candidate, they were going to win.

Phase Two (1932-Present): Red, but not stupendously so. It’s not that Indiana could never vote for a Democrat. FDR won twice, LBJ and Obama once. But in every election from 1932 forward, the Republican candidate has done better there than in the national popular vote. Some switch got flipped. I’m not sure what it was. There are several red states that didn’t respond well to FDR, even if they voted for him in 1932 and/or 1936. This is the first one I’ve found that became solidly red for the first time during his presidency.

The other unique thing is the consistency of Republican support without ever having a +30 or until 2016 even a +20 year. It’s hard to stay in that +10 to +15 range for 80-90 years without ever going the other way when there’s a particularly bad candidate/state fit.

At the moment, Indiana looks like a prototypical GOP state. It’s whiter than average, lower income than average (35th), less educated than average (43rd in bachelor’s degrees, 40th in graduate degrees.) The thing is, Indiana was also red 60 years ago when these were not indicators of red states.

TL;DR I’m confused.

How Biden Could Improve on Hillary’s 2016 Result: Though we haven’t seen concrete evidence in Indiana polls, nationally Biden is running ahead of Clinton’a 2016 numbers with less educated white voters. There could be some third party voters who still don’t like Trump and find Biden more palatable than Hillary.

If Indiana doesn’t become even more red than 2016, and Biden can hold his current 7% national advantage, that would translate to doing a few points better in Indiana, which is what the surveys are showing. While Biden remains below 40%, Trump isn’t clearing 50% by very much. If Biden gets the majority of undecideds, as many challengers do, you could see an 8 to 10 percent final gap.

How Trump Could Improve on His 2016 Result: Indiana is pretty socially conservative. Trump will likely get points for nominating a justice that will give the Supreme Court a 6:3 conservative majority. Maybe those Johnson voters pick Trump this time.

Thinking Trump is going to do much better than his 19 point win last time is a stretch, but maybe he pushes Indiana to R+25 by improving how it compares to the rest of the country.

Forecast: Don’t really have a particular feel for how this will turn out, but Trump by 12 sounds about right.

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