‘The world is watching Vigo County’

What the country can learn from an unlikely bellwether

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. — For more than a century, Vigo County had enjoyed a reputation as one of the country’s foremost electoral bellwethers.

Since 1888, this county in western Indiana has been a mirror of American politics; In all but two presidential elections, its voters chose the winning candidate, and are so politically fluid that they seem to swing regularly from Democrat to Repulican and back again.

The small, rural area — Terre Haute, the county seat, is only the 13th-largest city in Indiana — has offered an unlikely glimpse into the mind of the American voter, reflecting the rest of the nation during election season and mystifying residents and national politicos alike.

“It’s hard to wrap your head around a county that most recently had voted for President Obama on two occasions, then turns around and votes in an overwhelming way for President Trump,” said Joe Etling, chair of the county’s Democratic Party. “It’s pretty difficult to put all that together.”

The last time Vigo voters were contrary was 1952, when the county went for Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson and the nation elected Dwight D. Eisenhower. The only other time since 1888 the county failed to pick the winner was in 1908, when William Howard Taft defeated their pick, William Jennings Bryan.

And though Vigo’s voters have been picked the winner in nearly every election for the past 100 years, this year was different. While the country went for Democratic candidate Joe Biden, the county broke overwhelmingly in favor of incumbent President Donald Trump.

Interest in the peculiar Midwestern bellwether renewed again this year, raising the question of what, exactly, makes this place so presidentially unique. However, at a time of growing political partisanship, Vigo County, like other bellwethers across the nation, may be the latest example of a swing toward greater polarization.

Peripheral voters, independents, and political fluidity

Matt Bergbower, a political science professor at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, said “peripheral” and independent voters might explain Vigo County’s oddity.

Peripheral voters, he said, are those who sit out the midterms but vote in presidential elections. They are loosely engaged politically, and aren’t tied strongly to a party, making them more easily swayed by the candidates and campaigns.

“Peripheral voters are, for lack of a better word, persuadable by candidates or persuadable by the mood of the nation,” Bergbower said.

Not only can this be seen in Vigo voters’ choices at the national level, but in local politics, too. Voters aren’t afraid to swing between parties, and signs and bumper stickers leading up to the election showed support for Donald Trump alongside Democratic candidates for Vigo County Clerk and other local seats.

Campaign messaging can be particularly persuasive to these voters, and likely played a role in shifting them from Obama to Trump in 2016, said Etling. The message from Donald Trump’s first campaign, albeit very different, had similar themes to Barack Obama’s.

“The message coming from Trump had similarities about hope,” Etling said. “Not that he was selling hope, but he was saying, ‘Your life is going to be better if I'm president. It’s going to be great again around here.’ In that regard, it was comparable to what President Obama had in his campaigns.”

“It was a similar message,” he said, “that just flipped the script.”

Norman Lowery, a septuagenarian from Vigo County, said Trump struck a nerve with voters who were tired of traditional politicians not getting things done. The president’s vow to shake up Washington and “drain the swamp” captivated local voters.

“People wanted to believe that it was going to be different,” he said. “They could see he was different. He wasn’t a traditional political candidate. They had great expectations for what would occur the next four years.”

People over party

Perhaps Vigo County owes its streak to the idea that many residents value people over parties, and fluctuate from election to election.

Marie Belzile-Theisz, an advanced placement U.S. history teacher who ran for county council at-large and won, said residents are looking to do what’s best for the county, and will elect whoever can make that happen — Democrat or Republican.

“I do think in Vigo County, we’re small enough that a lot of people will look beyond the party,” she said. “I have some friends who are very strongly Republican, but will support me 100%. I think it’s because they look at the person.”

This political fluidity is exemplified by the yard signs that line Terre Haute’s neighborhoods. It’s not uncommon to see Trump 2020 signs followed by signs for local Democrats, and vice versa.

Michael Conley, a receptionist at a local healthcare facility, cast his ballot at an early voting center in Terre Haute. The 39-year-old voted for President Trump, but also voted for a number of Democrats at the local level.

“I generally err on the side of conservatism,” Conley said. “That being said, I am absolutely willing to hear from anyone, and if I like what someone has to say and what they’re offering, I’d be silly not to vote for them. In my opinion, a straight ticket is just not the way to go.”

Conley’s father, a union member, was always encouraged to vote for Democrats, but never thought that was right, a philosophy he passed onto his son. He taught Conley to vote for someone not because someone tells him to, but because of his conscience.

“I think that, in a nutshell, is what we vote for — or what we should vote for,” Conley said. “It should be our conscience. It should be because we feel like our family, community, state, and country is going to be better for it.”

“I will vote my conscience,” Conley added. “I don’t care what party.”


While many residents point to the county’s demographics as the reason for its predictive streak, racial demography lends an imperfect explanation, as Vigo County is not an exact reflection of the United States.

The county is far whiter than the rest of the nation, with 85% of its population composed of white, non-Hispanic people. By contrast, the United States is 60% non-Hispanic white. It also has a lower percentage of Black and Latinx people than the country does as a whole, making it fall short of the ideal American microcosm.

More telling than racial demographics is the county’s mix of urban and rural communities and young and old populations.

The county is a combination of both rural and urban demographics — Bergbower classified it as “rurban,” a fitting mix of the two. Of the county’s 262,400 acres, about half (119,977 acres), is farmland. The rest is urban.

Beyond that, the county has a mix of young people and older people, given the number of colleges are in the area.

“With the size of the county, the number of institutions of higher education in Vigo County also presents faculty, staff, students that are probably being taught to think critically and keep open minds, so that may play a role as well,” Etling said.

Four colleges — Indiana State University, Ivy Tech Community College, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods — call Vigo County home, and students are more likely to vote for Democrats, he said.

Terre Haute, the county’s largest town at about 60,000 people (almost half of the county’s total population), also adds blue to an otherwise red county, as urban voters are more likely to vote for Democrats.

So while Vigo County isn’t a perfect reflection of the United States, its mix of Democrats, Republicans, Independents and peripheral voters; older people and college students, city dwellers and farmers, can offer insight into its voting patterns.

But then again, Bergbower said, maybe it’s just a fluke, a streak built on odd chance.

“I don’t know if others are true believers of our bellwether status,” Bergbower said. “I’m thinking there's some dumb luck involved.”

The disappearance of bellwethers; the rise of polarization

Before the 2020 election, bellwether counties were already a rarity. Of the nation’s 3,000-plus counties, only 19 — or .006% — were bellwethers between 1980 and 2016.

This year, that number dropped dramatically, as only one bellwether county maintained its status. Clallam County in Washington, unlike every other former bellwether, voted for Joe Biden in November. The rest stuck with the incumbent.

According to David Hopkins, a professor of political science at Boston College, political polarization is becoming the norm, and this kind of swing voting is being phased out.

“Over time in American elections, we have more and more states, regions and counties that are consistently aligned with either Democrats or Republicans — regardless of specific candidates and regardless of specific elections,” he said.

40 years ago, Hopkins said, there were 20 or 30 swing states. Now, there are less than 15. Similarly, when looking at bellwether counties, there are fewer than there used to be. Most counties, he said, are going to vote predictably red or blue.

Vigo County, having broken its bellwether streak, may be becoming more reliably red, falling into a trend of polarization that is being seen nationwide.

“The population of counties that could swing back and forth and be red one year and blue one year is simply a lot smaller than it used to be,” Hopkins said. “That’s a testament to the fact that there’s more of a regional and geographic divide between the parties than there used to be.”

INNOVATI20N20 showcases the master's projects of the 2020 Media Innovation program at the Northeastern University School of Journalism. © 2020