Could Indiana Go Blue?

Picture a swing state. Got it? Good. Chances are it looks peninsular, like Florida. Or triangular, like New Hampshire. Or maybe even amoeboid, like Ohio.

But I'm willing to bet it doesn't look like Indiana. 

There's good reason for that. Technically, swing states are states that, you know, swing from election to election. Like, say, Iowa, which voted for Al Gore in 2000 and George W. Bush in 2004. By this measure, Indiana isn't a swing state at all. It's chosen the Republican candidate in every election since 1964--and it hasn't even been close. Last time around, Bush won the Hoosier state by 15.7 percent. His margin of victory in 2000--20.7 points--was even larger.

So why, then, has Barack Obama opened 32 local offices, hired dozens of paid staffers, spent at least $1.5 million on general-election TV ads and made five stops in the state since mid-July? Answer: because he thinks Indiana may finally be ready to swing. For months, the Republican Party appeared to disagree. John McCain hasn't visited since July 1,hasn't opened any field offices and hasn't sent any paid staffers, choosing instead to bundle operations in county Republican headquarters that also manage outreach for Gov. Mitch Daniels' reelection bid. But suddently, it seems, the GOP has had a change of heart. Today, the RNC is launching a nearly $5 million advertising blitz in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and--for the first time--Indiana. That's no coincidence.

Apparently, they've seen the polls. Last month, five Indiana surveys hit the wires. The first September sounding--CNN/Time--showed McCain with a cozy six-point advantage and 51 percent of the population in his pocket. But since then, the race has narrowed. Big10 Battleground has McCain up by four; SurveyUSA, three; Rasmussen; two. None pegs McCain's support higher than 49 percent. The most unsettling numbers for the GOP, however, are the ones from Selzer & Co., which show Obama winning 47 to 44. Why are they so important? Because while other pollsters apply their likely voter models to past turnout numbers, Ann Selzer applies them to current census demographics. The result is a survey that more accurately reflects the increases in youth and minority turnout seen during the Democratic primaries. That's why Selzer was only pollster to get the notoriously tricky Iowa caucuses right. It's also why she has a reputation as the most accurate gun in town.

To buck historical trends and turn Indiana blue, Obama will have to make sure that the state's sizable population of African-Americans (concentrated in cities such as Gary and Indianapolis) and young voters (concentrated in college towns such as West Lafayette, South Bend and Bloomington) show up on Nov. 4. To that end, his campaign--which is banking on the Illinois senator's across-the-border name recognition and appeal to propel him to a 20-30 point victory in the Chicago-dominated northwestern quadrant of the state, where Kerry won by a mere two points--has utilized the extensive field operation still in place from May's hotly contested Democratic primary to add more than 200,000 new voters to the rolls.

Still, Obama won't win Indiana unless he consolidates the support of Dems in rural areas and the blue-collar factory towns that backed Clinton in May. That's where the economy comes in. In a state where plant closures have boosted the unemployment rate two full points over the past year (to 6.4 percent), Team Obama is hoping that its candidate's populist economic message--middle-class tax cuts, no tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas--will keep him in contention. As Nate Silver has written, if Obama can "hold his own in the Northeast portion of the state--losing by not more than 5 or 10 points--while keeping [deeply Republican] Southern Indiana to within 20," he'll have a fighting chance.

That's still a big if. For starters, the state GOP is much stronger than the local Democratic operation. As of 2004, Republicans had a 14-point advantage in party identification. They currently control the governor's mansion and 33 of Indiana's 50 State Senate seats. In fact, Evan Bayh is the only Democrat since 2000 to win a statewide race. Finally--and perhaps most troubling for Team Obama--local polls close at the unusually early hour of 6:00 p.m., which tends to limit participation among working-class voters (Indiana has one of the lowest turnout rates in the country). If turnout rises among Obama's supporters, it will likely rise among the rest of the state's center-right population as well. The two sides could cancel each other out.

Either way, McCain may have been right not to invest in Indiana. Why? Because it's near-impossible to imagine Obama winning Indiana without winning its eastern neighbor, Ohio, as well. The Buckeye State and the Hoosier State are identical demographically, but the former's politics are far more centrist--meaning that it's far more likely to vote Democratic. And if Obama wins Ohio's 20 electoral votes, he'll almost certainly win the White House--with or without Indiana. In the end, then, an Obama victory in Indiana may not change the outcome of the election. But it would certainly change our image of a swing state. And that could have repercussions long after Election Day 2008.