Democratic Party

A Presidential Bellwether Is Still Waiting to Start Winning Under Trump

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The headquarters of Clabber Girl, the baking powder company, is a point of civic pride, along with Indiana State University, which has rising enrollment, and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, a highly regarded science and engineering college. One old factory is being converted into lofts. But several people, when asked about the state of things, simply responded with a wince.

Vigo County is a place known more for its past than its future. The grave site of Eugene V. Debs, a native son and socialist who championed workers’ rights but was imprisoned for protesting World War I, is showered with coins and a faded political button that says “Veterans for Peace.” The statue of Larry Bird, who played at Indiana State, marks the peak of the school’s basketball program, almost 40 years ago. Anaconda no longer makes steel here, and the Columbia Record Club long ago stopped operations, along with several other manufacturers, like the Root Glass Company, which invented the green Coke bottle.

For Mr. Trump, the challenge in a place like Vigo is not to solidify his base, which remains strongly behind him, but rather to keep the support of swing voters and Republicans who were reluctant to back him. National polls have found that Trump voters who had supported Mr. Obama in previous elections have now soured on the president at higher rates than other Trump voters.

“I think we have a broad cross section of what the country is made up of, that’s kind of in the middle,” said Don Scott, an insurance agent. “When the country gets frustrated, we get frustrated.”

Photo

Coins and a button on the Terre Haute grave marker of Eugene V. Debs, a native son and socialist. Credit Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

A Republican, Mr. Scott said he had voted for the Libertarian candidate, Gary Johnson, over Mr. Trump. And what does he think now? “It’s what I expected,” Mr. Scott said. “He’s crazy.”

At the Rotary Club meeting, Stephanie Welsh described the president as a “blustery, vain politician who is neither a Republican or a Democrat.” She voted for Mr. Trump because of his management experience, and has not given up on him but would like him to be less confrontational.

“I think when he has worked at being more civil, I appreciate it,” she said.

Mr. Trump’s appeal here had been evident on the Sunday before the Indiana primary last year when Rob Lundstrom, owner of the Indiana Theater, saw people lining up before 6 a.m. for a Trump campaign rally. He said more than 3,000 people packed into the seating area before fire marshals cut off entry, leaving over 1,000 more standing outside.

Now that Mr. Trump is nine months into his term, Mr. Lundstrom can sense a waning of the enthusiasm, particularly because of Mr. Trump’s attack-mode approach to the presidency. “That’s a dysfunction even an operating business couldn’t have,” Mr. Lundstrom said. “I think flexibility and collaboration is what is needed.”

As for the winning, he said: “I think it’s still in the first quarter. Winning is a relative term.”

Every four years, Vigo’s predictive status is put to the test, and with its lack of diversity and treadmill economy, its bellwether status may be waning. Its record already faced a close call in 2012, when Mr. Obama won the county by only a few hundred votes.

Will its role as a bellwether continue? “Maybe not,” Mr. McKee said. “But I’ll concede that only after we miss a couple of elections. My fellow citizens surprise me, and sometimes I wonder whether I know them any more.”

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Wendy Pettit

Wendy Pettit is a writer for NYT and writes for other publications on her spare time. She lives in Chicago with her husband and her dog Zuko.

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