Indiana touts itself as the “Crossroads of America.”
But where presidential politics is concerned, we’re more like the Backroads of America.
Most years, we don’t play; we ride the bench. Our voters are bystanders to election dramas playing out in Iowa, New Hampshire and the slew of “Super Tuesday” states during the primaries, and to the few swing states like Ohio, Florida and Wisconsin in the general election.
That could change this year, as it did in 2008 when Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were still competing for the nomination by the time Indiana’s May primary rolled around and as it did in 2016 when Republicans like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas were making a last-ditch effort to stop Donald Trump.
Right now, there is no single front-runner in the Democratic primary field. Former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg is clinging to a small lead in the overall delegate count after having apparently won the mucked-up Iowa caucuses and coming in second in New Hampshire to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Sen. Amy Klobuchar has new-found momentum after surging to third in New Hampshire. Former Vice President Joe Biden and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren aren’t giving up yet.
Potentially overshadowing them all is former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg, whose sizable fortune is now directed squarely at Trump. You can tell who Trump considers a chief rival by the vitriol he aims at them in Twitter, and lately it’s aimed with juvenile insults at Bloomberg.
Indiana’s primary — this year being held on May 5 — is ridiculously late. By the time Hoosiers make their nominating preferences, 40 states will have already held their primaries or caucuses.
For Indiana votes to matter, we have to hope no one has locked up the 1,991 delegates needed to clinch the Democratic nomination.
Please let it happen.
In 2008, I saw the difference it made as Obama, Clinton and their surrogates, including former President Bill Clinton, crisscrossed Indiana personally appealing to voters. I’d covered Iowa and New Hampshire and other early primary states and witnessed the engagement and excitement that face-to-face contact with candidates propels.
I just never thought I’d see it here.
It mattered. In a typical primary election in Indiana, only about 20 to 22 percent of voters bother going to the polls. In 2008, primary turnout was 40 percent. That November, the organization Obama maintained in Indiana helped him narrowly win this state’s electoral votes, with an increased general election turnout of 62 percent.
In 2016, when Republicans were competing in the primary here, turnout went up to 38 percent.
Kip Tew, a former Indiana Democratic Party chairman who was state chairman of Obama’s presidential campaign here, wrote about that 2008 election in his book “Journey to Blue.”
“It was the best time of my life in politics,” Tew told me. “There’s nothing that comes close to 2008 as far as feeling like I was part of something that mattered… Citizens of Indiana were completely engaged on the Democratic side, so it was wonderful.”
The impact is still being felt, he said.
“Most of the people that were deeply involved in 2008 that I’d never seen before in politics ended up staying in politics, in a good way,” Tew said. “They got involved. They stayed involved. They understood the importance of civic engagement. It was a wonderful infusion.”
He sees a trend: 2008, 2016 and, potentially, this year.
“It’s looking increasingly like (Indiana’s primary) is going to matter,” Tew said. “I see at least three candidates with staying power: Bloomberg, Buttigieg, Sanders. There may be a clear leader by then but we sure as hell don’t know now. And I think actually the fourth and fifth-place finishers in New Hampshire (Klobuchar and Biden) still have a path. You can’t count out Biden.”
The idea of the Democratic nomination still being up in the air sends shivers down the spine of many national Democrats who envision a bloodbath convention and sore losers hurting the eventual nominee.
But I want national politics to be more than a spectator sport in Indiana. The Electoral College — despite being an anachronism that doesn’t function the way Alexander Hamilton expected and which values empty land over actual voters — isn’t going to change any time soon. A meaningful primary is, however, a realistic possibility.
Happy days may be here in Indiana again.
Mary Beth Schneider is an editor at TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalists.