Monday, October 13, 2008

Back Home Again

It has long been a reliable ritual of presidential election television coverage: the theme music comes up, the broadcast begins – and within an hour, Indiana goes into the Republican column.

In presidential politics, the birthplace of Michael Jackson, Theodore Dreiser, Eugene V. Debs and Dan Quayle has been a dependable GOP stronghold for the past 40 years. Not since 1964, when Lyndon Johnson piled up his landslide victory over Republican Barry Goldwater, has a Democrat carried the state. Its lopsided Republican majorities meant that the TV networks could safely declare a Republican victory there as part of the evening’s preliminaries and then move on to other business.

This year, however, could be different. Polls show only a handful of percentage points separate Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain. For the first time since A.J. Foyt recorded his second win at the Indianapolis 500, the Hoosier State and its 11 electoral votes are up for grabs.

While the notion of Indiana as a battleground state seems unusual to modern-day political junkies, in the latter half of the 19th century both parties fought fiercely for its 15 electoral votes.

Between 1880 and 1892, neither party managed to carry the state by more than 7,125 votes – Democrat Grover Cleveland’s margin of victory over Republican Benjamin Harrison in 1892. Four years earlier, Harrison, a resident of Indianapolis and former U.S. senator, carried his home state by a mere 2,376 votes over Cleveland.

Recognizing its importance, both parties usually managed to include a Hoosier on the presidential ticket. With only two exceptions, Indiana was represented on the national ticket of at least one of the parties in every presidential election between 1868 and 1912.

That was no accident. With voting for state and local candidates held in October, and a population that was broadly representative of the Midwest, Gilded Age political operatives recognized that the Hoosier state was as an important bellwether. “If we carry Indiana,” Republican James A. Garfield advised friends during his 1880 campaign for the White House, “the rest will be easy.”

The 1880 campaign demonstrated the importance with which both parties regarded Indiana. After a stunning victory by the insurgent Greenback-Labor Party in Maine in September, the GOP poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the state, according to Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield, by Kenneth D. Ackerman.

The cash infusion was believed necessary to prevent what Republicans feared was a massive attempt by Democrats to buy votes to secure victory, Ackerman’s account notes, and included a large quantity of $2 bills “to scratch itchy palms.”

It worked. Garfield polled 49.3 percent of the vote and carried the state with a plurality of 6,646 votes.

Besides Harrison, the list of Hoosiers who figures in presidential politics during the Gilded Age is notable for the obscurity of those on it. It includes:

-- Schuyler Colfax, a former speaker of the House who served one term as vice president under Ulysses S. Grant and was later linked to the Credit Mobilier scandal;

-- William H. English, a former congressman nominated by the Democrats in 1880 to serve as Winfield Scott Hancock’s running mate;

-- Thomas A. Hendricks, a Democrat who served in both the House and Senate and holds the distinction of having been nominated for vice-president twice – once to run with Samuel Tilden in 1876 and again in 1884 with Grover Cleveland;

-- Republican Charles W. Fairbanks, Theodore Roosevelt’s vice-presidential candidate in 1904;

-- Democratic Sen. John W. Kern, who ran with William Jennings Bryan in 1908; and

-- John W. Marshall, Indiana’s Democratic governor, who ran as Woodrow Wilson’s running mate in 1912.

So if Indiana finds itself up for grabs this fall, that won’t be unprecedented – indeed, the Hoosier State will be “back home again” among the nation’s political battlegrounds.

Congressional Quarterly, Presidential Elections. Congressional Quarterly, Washington D.C., 1995.
Ackerman, Kenneth D. Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003.
Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Washington D.C.. http//

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