Lake County, Ind., is ground zero in the state’s Democratic race for the presidential nomination, and conventional wisdom would seem to hold that Northwest Indiana is fertile ground for front-runner Barack Obama. A popular U.S. senator from neighboring Illinois, Obama’s name is certainly familiar to residents here, most of whom get their news from the nearby Chicago media market, and many national pundits have identified this demographically complex region of Indiana as a likely Obama stronghold.
Still, in this decidedly unconventional primary election season, the first in Indiana to really matter since Robert Kennedy’s primary victory here in 1968, the inclinations of Northwest Indiana’s electorate may depend on much more than just Chicago television coverage or the fact that Obama lives only a few miles across the state line on Chicago’s South Side.
For the charismatic first-term U.S. senator from Illinois, says Indiana University Northwest Assistant Professor of Political Science Marie Eisenstein, Ph.D., just living in the neighborhood and being on local TV won’t be enough to defeat dauntless challenger Hillary Clinton in this critical region of the Hoosier State.
“I’ve never given a lot of credence to that idea (of favorite-son status in border states),” said Eisenstein, an avid election watcher who teaches presidential politics at IU Northwest. Eisenstein is not affiliated with either campaign.
“At this point, Obama is a known quantity,” she said. “This isn’t like Iowa, where he was new and nobody really knew anything about him or that he was going to win so many of these races. We’re a lot further along in the process now. The dynamics have shifted. This isn’t the right time for him to try and win on favorite-son status. That’s just not possible anymore. Everybody knows about the comments from Rev. (Jeremiah) Wright and some of Obama’s associations that he’s had, and that’s not going away. People are going to decide what they think about that.”
After Marion County, which includes Indianapolis, Lake County has the most Democrats of any county in Indiana, and it has the highest density of Democrats anywhere in the state. Neighboring Porter County has a greater Republican presence but still boasts a healthy mix of Democrats and independents. In many ways, Eisenstein said, Northwest Indiana is representative of all the elements that have driven the Democratic primary thus far. It’s also a region containing several demographics that have been favorable to the former first lady.
“Look, Hammond and East Chicago have heavy Latino populations, and a lot of those voters are Catholic,” Eisenstein said. “We don’t know for sure how they will vote in Indiana, but those are groups that have gone very heavily for Hillary in other states. We have the white, blue-collar voters here, another group that Obama has had real trouble connecting with. We have a lot of seniors here. Every group that Obama has struggled to attract is represented in Northwest Indiana.”
Eisenstein also noted that Northwest Indiana has several constituencies that have broken for Obama in previous contests, including young voters, white voters with college degrees, and African-American voters. The fact that Obama’s African-American support has approached 90 percent in recent contests would seem to foreshadow big margins for him in Gary and other communities with significant African-American voting blocs, she said, but Clinton’s potential strength with other Lake County demographics likely means that a large victory in Gary will not, by itself, seal the deal here for the U.S. senator next door.
So far, Eisenstein said, the two campaigns have taken decidedly different approaches toward getting out the vote in Northwest Indiana. Counting an expected appearance in Portage on April 30, Clinton has visited the region five times. Her stops have included Crown Point, Gary, East Chicago, Hammond, Washington Township, and Hobart, where she met with a local family on April 29 to have a “kitchen table discussion” about the economy.
Obama, by contrast, has made only one personal appearance here so far, at Gary’s Roosevelt High School on April 10. Massive turnout at that event, which had Obama supporters standing in line for a couple of hours in the cold rain, demonstrated his considerable support in Northwest Indiana, and a subsequent visit to Merrillville by Obama’s wife, Michelle, was also well attended.
Based on what she’s seen in her neighborhood, Eisenstein said, Obama appears to have an edge in grassroots campaigning.
“From what I can see in my mailbox, the Obama people are ‘out-brochuring’ Hillary by about two-to-one,” she said. “I see more grassroots campaigning for Obama. But Hillary has definitely put in more face time.”
That, Eisenstein suggested, may reflect Indiana’s status as a must-win for Clinton, who continues to trail Obama in delegates won and popular votes received. Despite the New York senator’s 10-point win in Pennsylvania on April 22, her chances of catching Obama in either tally have all but vanished, and Eisenstein suggested that Clinton needs a substantial victory on May 6 to convince the Democratic Party’s all-important superdelegates that her candidacy remains viable.
Although Clinton’s campaign has insisted that North Carolina, where Obama has a comfortable lead in polls, remains in play, Eisenstein said that the one-time front-runner’s hopes for a late-inning comeback rest squarely on Hoosiers’ shoulders.
“Ninety percent of the African-American vote has been breaking for Barack Obama,” the professor said. “That’s a stalwart Democratic demographic. If you look at the demographics of North Carolina, they have a larger percentage of African-American voters than Indiana does. She needs at least a five- or six-point win, preferably a nine- or 10-point win, to really cut into his lead and continue to be viable. She’s not going to get that in North Carolina. Indiana is her best shot for a big victory.”
Generally considered to be an industrial region and an extension of the Chicago suburbs, Northwest Indiana’s regional identity has always stood apart from the rest of the state. Although the Region, as it is sometimes affectionately known, has long served as a valuable industrial and economic engine for Indiana, people here have often felt underappreciated and even underserved by downstate lawmakers.
Northwest Indiana’s relationship with its metro neighbor to the north, meanwhile, often appears to be a lopsided arrangement. Chicago news, marketing and sports influences flow out of the Windy City (Bears fans outnumber Colts fans significantly here), and many Region workers commute to jobs in the city. But very little about the Region receives much notice in the Chicago media, which is why many times Northwest Indiana voters are more familiar with Illinois candidates like Barack Obama than they are with their own gubernatorial candidates.
It’s this media dynamic that may lead some election observers to give Obama the edge in Northwest Indiana, Eisenstein explained. Still, in a part of Indiana that has often felt ignored by points north and south, personal appearances by a candidate of Clinton’s stature most assuredly have an impact, she said.
“We do seem to get neglected here in this ‘no man’s land,’” said Eisenstein, who grew up in Calumet City, Ill., and has lived in the Region for more than 20 years. “So for a candidate to come here and talk to people and say, ‘Your vote matters,’ that does make a difference.”
Besides, as Eisenstein pointed out, Hillary Clinton is probably the one candidate who comes into Northwest Indiana with name recognition equal to Obama’s.
“I can’t imagine that people aren’t familiar with Hillary Clinton, as well, after her husband served as president for eight years,” she said. “But Hillary is definitely putting in a lot of face time here, and I’m sure she’s hoping that will have an effect at the polls.
“I do think we’ll see (Obama) up here again at least one more time,” Eisenstein added. “And I think we’ll see one of his surrogates up here, as well.”
IU Northwest Assistant Professor of Political Science Marie Eisenstein, Ph.D., is available for media interviews in advance of the Indiana Democratic primary election on May 6. She is the author of the 2008 book “Religion and the Politics of Tolerance: How Christianity Builds Democracy.”
For more information, or to request an interview with Prof. Eisenstein, contact Media Specialist Christopher Sheid in the IU Northwest Office of Marketing and Communications at (219) 980-6802, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.