Back in July, Split Ticket started a new analysis series looking at realignments in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. To add some geographic diversity to the repertoire, this edition will move west to break down Indiana. The Hoosier State is an excellent case study for both the national trends of the last two decades and the ongoing regional phenomenon of down ballot lag.
But what exactly is down ballot lag and why does it matter? To understand that, one must first recognize where the American political winds have been blowing. As of late, Republicans have lost ground with college-educated, suburban voters while Democrats have forfeited significant amounts of once-reliable rural and working-class white support.
The term down ballot lag is therefore used to describe situations in which, for example, a rural Democrat running for state or local office is able to generate enough crossover support to win an area that votes Republican for President. To read more background, check out Split Ticket’s first two installments.
PARAMETERS & STANDARDS
In accordance with the standards applied to New Jersey and Pennsylvania, this edition of the series will provide a geographical and historical analysis of Indiana and some of its key political regions. Let realignment be defined as consistent long-term shifts in the voting patterns of individuals on geographic or demographic terms. When it comes to specific numbers, focus should be given to trends and margins. Together, these metrics allow readers to detect patterns and change over time.
RECENT STATE & FEDERAL RACES
Indiana’s 1974 Senate election is one of its most fascinating because it pitted two renowned politicians against each other. The incumbent was Birch Bayh. First elected in 1962, Bayh eventually proved that one could be both a dynamic and liberal lawmaker in an otherwise red state. His 1974 challenger was Indianapolis Mayor Richard Lugar, a rising star in his own right.
Both men ran respectable campaigns in the Watergate midterm, but Lugar struggled to overcome the GOP’s indelible association with President Nixon. The Almanac of American Politics hammers this point home, noting that the Marion County Republican was supposedly “Nixon’s favorite mayor”. Traditional coalitions were on full display undergirding Bayh’s 50-46% win; Democrats carried the south, west, and east while Republicans won the Indianapolis suburbs and the north.
Lugar was not deterred. In 1976, he outran President Ford by double-digits and defeated sitting Democratic Senator Vance Hartke. Over the next four decades, Lugar would become an institution both at home and in Washington. His accomplishments were not just parochial. The Senator took a keen interest in foreign policy during his tenure, chairing the Foreign Relations Committee and helping to bolster nuclear non-proliferation treaties. After leaving the Senate, Lugar founded an eponymous center to advocate bipartisanship in Congress.
Besides his somewhat-contested 1982 reelection, Lugar never faced a competitive race again. He lost the 2012 Republican primary in a landslide to Treasurer Richard Mourdock, a Tea Party candidate who claimed that the incumbent was out of touch. After making controversial abortion comments, Mourdock went on to lose Lugar’s seat to Democratic Congressman Joe Donnelly. Republican Mike Braun is the current Senator.
What about Birch Bayh? Like so many other prominent New Deal-style Democrats, he lost reelection in 1980. Just as Watergate had been too much for Lugar to surmount, the Reagan Revolution proved unyielding for Bayh. His replacement was Dan Quayle, a young and affable Congressman prone to gaffe-making. Quayle made few waves in the Senate, a far cry from both his predecessor and Lugar, and unexpectedly ended up as Vice President after George H.W. Bush won in 1988.
From there Indiana’s Class 3 Senate seat passed to Dan Coats, who won a 1990 special election and later a full term in 1992. After a single stint, the Republican incumbent chose to retire. His successor was Evan Bayh, a former Governor and scion of Indiana’s top political dynasty. Despite avenging his father’s loss with a victory in 1998, the younger Bayh did not wish to stay around long.
Ironically, Bayh’s late retirement decision in 2010 allowed his predecessor, Coats, to return to Congress’s upper chamber. Sticking with his own pattern, though, Coats retired again after just a single term. The race to replace him juxtaposed Bayh, who was attempting to make a comeback, against Republican Congressman Todd Young. At the time, polling suggested that Bayh had a shot at winning, but Hillary Clinton’s lopsided loss in the Hoosier State eventually precluded that outcome.
Indiana has long been a Republican state at the presidential level. Between 1960 and 2020, it backed Democratic nominees for the nation’s highest office on only two occasions: 1964 and 2008. In the elections lying between those zeniths, Republicans rarely won the state by single-digit margins. While the Indianapolis suburbs are trending leftward, Democrats are not expected to compete for the Hoosier State presidentially any time soon.
Former President Barack Obama’s impressive 2008 victory in Indiana is the highlight of its recent presidential history. But how did it happen? Most explanations blame the spill-over effect from the Chicago media market in Obama’s homestate, but Split Ticket analyst Armin Thomas places more emphasis on the improvements that Democrats made in the Indy suburbs between 2004 and 2008.
Any recent history of Hoosier gubernatorial elections should begin in 1988, when incumbent Republican Robert Orr was term-limited. The ensuing battle took place between Democratic Secretary of State Evan Bayh and Republican Lieutenant Governor John Mutz. After a raucous campaign season, Bayh won 53-47%. The traditional coalition prevailed, with Mutz dominating in and around Indianapolis despite faltering elsewhere. At the time of his election, Bayh was the youngest Governor in the nation and Indiana’s first Democratic state executive since 1965.
Bayh posted an easy reelection in 1992, setting himself up for a successful Senate career in his father’s image. Lieutenant Governor Frank O’Bannon managed to win the office in 1996 and 2000, continuing the Democrats’ long-awaited winning-streak. Republicans finally returned to control in 2004, when unelected-incumbent Joe Kernan lost to former OMB director Mitch Daniels.
Democrats competed for the governorship competitively in 2012 and 2016 with ex-state house speaker John Gregg, but lost on both occasions. Republican Congressman Mike Pence won the first race, getting the ball rolling on his eventual selection as Donald Trump’s Vice Presidential pick. Gregg’s 2016 loss was perhaps more impressive because of the headwinds he faced at the top of the ticket; Republican Eric Holcomb only won by 6 while Trump carried the Hoosier State by 19.
DOWN BALLOT LAG – EXAMPLES
THE GOODIN FAMILY
One of the best examples of down ballot lag in Indiana is the Goodin family from Scott County. Though traditionally-Democratic, Scott’s federal-level partisan lean shifted sharply toward the Republicans during the Trump-era. Despite that, residual goodwill among ancestral Democrats allowed state representative Terry Goodin, and county sheriff Jerry Goodin, his brother, to win landslide reelections in 2018.
In 2020, Goodin narrowly won Scott County but lost the 66th legislative district as a result of increased polarization and Trump’s gigantic victory in the seat. But his competitive loss to Republican Zach Payne nonetheless proved that crossover support matters in regional elections. Terry’s brother Jerry faces reelection as sheriff this fall in what will be another case test of down ballot lag’s residual power. Goodin will certainly outrun fundamentals, but will he do so by enough to win?
A second, more holistic indicator of down ballot lag is the comparison of Township Trustee loyalty versus 2020 presidential vote. As one can see on the map above, there are dozens of Dem Trustee/Trump townships. These communities highlight pockets of ancestrally-Democratic support throughout Indiana, particularly in the southern Butternut region. The traditional coalition’s remnants can also be seen in the southwestern, northwestern, and central parts of the Hoosier State.
Two GOP Trustee/Biden townships, both located in Hamilton County, tell an ongoing story of Democratic growth in the greater Indianapolis area. Once a Republican bastion, these suburbs and exurbs have since begun to soften like their counterparts elsewhere in the country. For comparison’s sake, Hamilton probably fits well with Delaware County, Ohio. Both are still Republican, but could be Democratic by the end of the decade.
CONCLUSIONS – REGIONAL BREAKDOWN
The best time-series comparisons are made when two candidates win a given state by similar overall margins, but with drastically-different coalitions. That is exactly the case with the 2000 and 2020 presidential elections in Indiana, both of which Republicans won by around 16 points. During that timeframe, vote share swing told a story of the continuing national patterns.
In the ancestrally-Democratic south, southwest, and central regions, Republicans have posted sharp gains with rural voters. The GOP has also made up ground in the working class northwest, an area heavily-affected by recent steel plant woes. Democrats, meanwhile, have seen rapid gains in Marion County radiate outward into the Doughnut – particularly into Hamilton County. Other metros like Bloomington, Fort Wayne, Evansville, and Lafayette have also witnessed a decline in GOP support.
These regional developments are indicative of overarching national realities. Political trends, including the dichotomies between rural communities, suburbs, and urban sprawls can now be boiled down to universal movement across the entire country. Differences in income and educational-attainment, for instance, are now much more instructive than state boundaries.
*SPECIAL THANKS TO ARMIN THOMAS FOR THE POLITICAL CARTOGRAPHY*