TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) — A glass case in the history museum on the main street through this city celebrates its curious place in American lore. There’s a photo of John F. Kennedy Jr. on the courthouse steps, and Richard Nixon at Terre Haute's little airport. A news reel playing on a loop describes it as “magic town.”
Vigo County, with about 107,000 people on the western edge of Indiana, long had some mysterious mix of quirky politics, demographics, geography, religion, labor and luck that it was America's most reliable presidential bellwether.
Since 1888, this exhibit boasts, the county voted in line with the nation in every presidential election but two. It missed in 1908 and 1952, then remained a perfect predictor of the national mood, a rare place to toggle between Republicans and Democrats in harmony with America.
“That’s wrong now. We’re going to have to change that poster,” said Susan Tingley, the executive director of the museum, which resides in an old overalls factory that closed long ago, like most of the local factories.
The county's most recent presidential winning streak ended this year, as it did for nearly all the country’s reliable bellwethers, most of them blue-collar, overwhelmingly white communities in the Rust Belt. Of the 19 counties that had a perfect record between 1980 and 2016, all but one voted to reelect President Donald Trump, who lost to Democrat Joe Biden in both the national popular vote and in nearly every battleground state.
Many people here are left wondering whether it was merely a Trump-fueled fluke or whether the United States has cleaved itself so firmly into opposing camps that the old political standard bearers have been rendered obsolete — just more reliably red squares in the red middle of America.
“It speaks to an evolution in American politics,” said David Niven, a political scientist at the University of Cincinnati, who analyzed the state of Ohio’s fall from bellwether status this year.
Bellwethers were born when political battle lines tended to be drawn more cleanly along economic lines, he said. These middle-class communities were in the center so up for grabs. But as national politics has become more about culture wars and identity, Democrats lost their grip in places such as Vigo County that are overwhelmingly white, he said.
For generations its conservative tilt on social issues was balanced by left-leaning idiosyncrasies. There are four colleges here. It is the birthplace of Eugene V. Debs, a labor leader who ran for president as a socialist five times in the early 20th century. The county’s blue-collar workforce was heavily organized and union halls dotted the city.
Terre Haute was once so defined by its factories it even smelled of them. Big industrial plants lined the banks of the Wabash River, and the odor of fermentation and chemicals clung in the air. People are happy that the smell is gone now. But it drifted away as the plants closed down, and with it went countless good-paying jobs.
The Democratic-leaning ingredients in town diminished, too. Many young people now leave, seeking jobs in bigger cities. As industry crumbled, union membership declined.
Trump won here by 15 percentage points, about the same margin he won by in 2016. But local political observers marveled at the unprecedented number of straight-ticket Republican ballots: 11,744, more than a quarter of all the presidential votes cast. The county government, for the first time anyone can remember, will be controlled almost entirely by Republicans.
Todd Thacker, business manager of the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, tried mightily to persuade his members to “vote your paycheck” and elect Democrats who support organized labor. But he watched as many instead aligned themselves based on polarizing wedge issues — “God, guns and gays,” he derides it.
Trump managed to stoke that fear and people listened.
“He’s not a politician, he’s a scam artist,” Thacker said.
He guesses that typically about 35% of his members vote Republican. This year, he thinks that number increased.
Among the Trump-backing union members is Craig Rudisel, who spent 23 years in the military before joining the electricians' union and has a Trump sign as big as a bathtub on his lawn.
“I’ve had conversation with people I work with and they say ‘you need to support your brotherhood, you need to support your paycheck,’’’ said Rudisel, 50. “And I say ‘I have to support my conscience.’”
He said he's particularly drawn to Trump's position on guns, abortion and taxes. He wears a Make America Great Again cap every day.
Rudisel is proud of Vigo County’s bellwether history and that is part of why he has clung to the hope that Trump hasn’t lost. Trump has claimed there was widespread voter fraud, despite no evidence to support that charge.
Rudisel thinks what happened here is proof: Vigo County and the rest of the bellwethers always get it right and opted for Trump.
Tingley, at the county history museum, isn’t sure this place or any place can be a bellwether given the state of American politics.
“It is all politics of fear and passion. It’s not about voting for who’s right for you. It’s about avoiding the candidate that scares you the most,” she said. “If it gets back to what’s best for the country, what’s best for individuals, what’s best for communities, I think that’s when the bellwether counties all across the country can hit it again.”
Associated Press writer Josh Boak and data journalist Angeliki Kastanis contributed to this report.