Post-conventions, the media gaze is now set on a handful of states like Florida, Ohio, and Virginia. But without reliable polling data at this stage, efforts to gauge the favor of swing state voters--and in turn the fate of the nation--are bound to miss the mark.
A documentary film called Bellwether 2016 profiles the residents of a less scrutinized locale, Terre Haute in Vigo County, Indiana, home to a seemingly magical constituency that has picked the winner of every presidential election (but two) since 1888. Also, Vigo County's voting record in every presidential election since 1960 has mirrored the nation's margins within 4 percentage points, save one (when President Obama won the county by a landslide in 2008).
Bob talks to filmmaker Don Campbell about the project's mission to eschew the traditional tricks of polling science in favor of questions that measure the pulse of history’s most reliable presidential bellwether.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. At times, the reliability race between polling and punditry has felt like a battle for last place, a competition for who’s wrong, first and worst. What if there were a better way to divine the will of the electorate? What if there were a city or town that dependably reflected the mood and preferences of the country as a whole? It’s a notion that’s captured the imagination for decades. Magic Town is a 1947 Jimmy Stewart movie, set in the fictional demographically- perfect town called Grandview.
JIMMY STEWART AS RIP SMITH: This might be it, Ike, this might be a short-cut I’ve been searching for. Now look, look at Hoopendecker’s letter and look at Stringer’s figures. Stringer canvassed thousands of people all over the country. Hoopendecker canvassed a handful in a little, small town, one little town! Look at the results, look at that, 69.1, 69 - but they’re just the same, identical! I tell you, I tell you, Ike, this might be it. Now, listen, think of this. One small town that thinks exactly the way the nation does.
BOB GARFIELD: The film’s premise was based on a sociology experiment called the Middletown Studies in which researchers used Muncie, Indiana as America in microcosm to investigate the forces at work in the nation as a whole. But it may be that an actual “Magic Town” exists, about 120 miles from Muncie in Vigo County, Indiana, a town called Terre Haute. As far back as 1888, Vigo County has picked the winner of every presidential election but two. It missed on William Howard Taft in 1908 and was just 100 votes shy of picking Dwight Eisenhower in 1952.
Filmmaker Don Campbell pulled up stakes in Brooklyn and moved to Terre Haute to find out what makes its people history's most reliable presidential bellwether.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
MAN: In a community like this, there’s not much difference in a Democrat and a Republican.
WOMAN: I worry about my children and my grandchildren.
MAN: I live paycheck to paycheck.
MAN: I, I don’t think it’s different from any other town in America.
MAN: They forget us once they’re there.
MAN: You know, you’re not gonna beat up anybody ‘cause they’re a Republican or a Democrat. And that’s democracy.
BOB GARFIELD: Campbell is calling his documentary project, Bellwether 2016. He says his mission isn’t to improve polling but simply to understand the people of magical Terre Haute.
DON CAMPBELL: I want to try and unpack what makes this town tick. With all the changes that we've seen in American society over the last 100, 130 years, how has this place stayed in sync with that?
BOB GARFIELD: Tell me what kind of questions that you're asking to, you know, get your finger on their pulse?
DON CAMPBELL: What are you saving money for? What you want to buy in your future? And then, what you want to see for the community? What you want to see for this country? What you think gets in our way? My hope now is to spin that out more into, okay, what are you thinking about the race?
BOB GARFIELD: Don, I want to play you some tape that you provided for us of a local barber with whom you spoke while he was cuttin’ hair.
BARBER: When I was there in Washington, DC and people said to me, oh, well you know what, we’re not interested in Terre Haute, ‘cause Terre Haute, the minority population is, is too small. It’s only 7%. National average is, is 12%. And how do you relate to that? How do you –
DON CAMPBELL: How do you not care about a human being, [LAUGHS] whether they’re black or they’re white, whether it’s the minority community or the majority community? How do you not care, no matter how small the numbers are, because the less you get total input, then you don’t have a full picture.
BOB GARFIELD: What do you think it is, if it isn’t purely demographics, that makes Vigo County so in sync with the rest of the electorate?
DON CAMPBELL: You know, look, some of it’s got to be luck but so many of the factors that are influencing the political emotion of the year come together here. You know, one of the things that Terre Haute prides itself on is it’s being the crossroads of America. In this town, you have still this strong surviving manufacturing center that was based on rail, that was based on coal mining. This was the hometown of Eugene Debs, the US socialist. And downtown, there's a union hall on almost every other corner - the Teamsters Union, the Carpenters Union, the Plumbers Union, the Steamfitters Union, the Electricians Union, the Operators Union, the Laborers Union. It’s an academic center. There are five colleges here and you still have a genuine urban core. You’re looking at a county of about 108,000, and a little under 60,000 live in the city proper, Terre Haute, and so, about another 50,000 live outside, in the more rural parts of Vigo County.
There’s, there's an image that we have in our head that I think of as being middle America, small town, wood frame houses on a, on a grid layout, people wavin’ to each other and sayin’ hi and everybody in town kind of knows everybody. That is kind of the reality in Terre Haute.
BOB GARFIELD: You describe Terre Haute in rather idyllic terms, and yet, the people you've spoken to don't necessarily voice a whole lot of optimism about their future.
DON CAMPBELL: Oh, that was Stranton Steel. [?] They left. J.I. Case left. Columbia Records left. That’s the story of Terre Haute in the, in the last 30 years. Those were high-wage jobs and now, you know, everything is minimum wage and a little above minimum wage.
DON CAMPBELL: I think it’s really reflective of what's happened in small and midsize cities across the nation. You drive through neighborhoods where houses are falling down, houses are abandoned. The economic infrastructure that built middle America, they feel like it's passed them by. There’s 3,144 counties in the United States. Now, 50% of the population lives in 146 counties. There’s almost 3,000 counties that account for the other 50% of the American population. Those 3,000 counties, we don't pay a lot of attention to them.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, to that point, of the 15 or 20 candidates who, at various points in this process, have stood for the nomination, how many of them have come through town?
DON CAMPBELL: Well, zero, at, at least in this cycle. I know that in 2008, when Indiana was a contested primary, that Obama and Clinton did both campaign here.
BARACK OBAMA: Change is not continuing the same tax policies as George Bush, giving tax breaks to companies that are shipping jobs overseas. Change is making sure those tax breaks go to companies that are investing while they’re in Terre Haute, while here in the United States of America.
[AUDIECE CHEERS AND APPLAUSE]
DON CAMPBELL: Certainly in the ‘50s and ‘60s, candidates came more frequently. I mean, everybody talks about Jack Kennedy speaking at the corner of 7th and Wabash, which is the crossroads of America. They like to call it “the main intersection downtown.”
BOB GARFIELD: We’re having this conversation the day after the Super Tuesday primaries. Assuming that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump go on to win the parties’ nominations – let’s just assume that, for the moment - from what you understand of the town so far, who’s the next president of the United States?
DON CAMPBELL: [LAUGHS] You know, people have been asking me since I got here and, you know, from the outside I would have thought, oh, this is bound and determined to be a solid Hillary community, with strong union Democrats. But pretty much as soon as I started talking with people about the election in the fall, you heard two names over and over again, and neither of them were Hillary Clinton. They were Trump and Sanders. You know, there’s such a sense from a large section of the population that we need to just blow it up and start over again.
I think whether this places a demographic cross-section of America or not, it's a real cross-section of American attitude and aspiration today, and that I think the candidates could do real well to come and spend time here. There may not be a ton of votes, but they're gonna hear something very real about what matters to people.
BOB GARFIELD: Don Campbell, thank you very much.
DON CAMPBELL: Thanks, Bob, a pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Don Campbell is the documentary filmmaker behind Bellwether 2016 at bellwether2016.org. Remember, there's no “A” in “bellwether.” [LAUGHS]
DON CAMPBELL: [LAUGHS] Thank you.