Suddenly, Indiana is a battleground

HAMMOND, Ind. -- John McCain’s in real trouble. The state of Indiana which has not voted Democratic in a presidential election since 1964 and which George Bush won by 18 percent in 2004, is suddenly a battleground. Most recent polls show the race with Sen. Barack Obama a toss-up.

The dramatic shifts in voter sentiments here, especially among white working class voters, are a microcosm of the changes sweeping the country. Dissatisfaction is running high with state unemployment at 6.4 percent, a 16 year high. The heavily industrialized north and cities across the state have experienced plant shutdowns. Rural poverty is growing and foreclosures widespread.

The mounting anger against Republican policies was already reflected in 2006, when Democrats captured three traditionally Republican held Congressional seats. And there is a tightening race between incumbent Republican Governor Mitch Daniels and Democrat Jill Long Thompson.

Grassroots election activity has generated an estimated 700,000 new voters to the rolls. Over 26,000 new registrants were added in heavily Democratic Lake County since the May primary alone. Some are predicting a record turnout of the 4.4 million voters.

Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73, along with other unions, has registered over 6,200 new voters since the primary. SEIU's NW Indiana Division Director Alice Bush told the World, “It’s too late for McCain to expand his electorate. He did nothing to register new voters. He’ll have to rely on the old Republican base. It’s too late now to start.”

With a close outcome predicted, voter turnout could be decisive. Here Obama has the advantage. McCain had taken Indiana for granted and been all but invisible until recently. He had no field offices, was relying on county and state Republican Party organizations and wasn’t advertising on television or radio. Now he’s scrambling to shift resources into the state.

Obama, on the other hand, has been steadily building a grassroots organization since 2007. “(He) was committed to Indiana from the beginning,” state Obama coordinator Jonathan Swain told the Chicago Tribune. “Meanwhile, Republicans have really taken this state for granted.”

The Obama campaign has 32 field offices and an army of volunteers including hundreds flocking in each weekend from Illinois. They are organizing precinct by precinct. Campus towns are abuzz with activity. The contested primary fight between Obama and Sen. Hilary Rodham Clinton spurred incredible excitement and grassroots organization, including new voter registration. The campaign never ceased operation.

In desperation, the McCain campaign has turned to voter suppression. A massive voter role purge of 2006 followed a new onerous voter ID law, since upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court requiring one government issued photo ID to vote. The GOP also went to court to block the opening of multiple early voting sites in heavily Democratic Lake County.

The Obama campaign is also benefiting from an unprecedented mobilization of the state labor movement. The Indiana State Federation of Labor is carrying out an ambitious plan to reach the 400,000 union members and their families before Election Day. They identified 30,000 unregistered union voters and tried to register them all.

As union members were gathering around a pickup truck before their weekly canvass in Valparaiso, Jeff Chidester, financial secretary of Ironworkers Local 395 was quoted in the Indiana AFL-CIO Blog as saying, 'We're walking because these candidates stand strong with the union movement, and working Hoosiers. We need to let our members know who the good guys and the bad guys are when it comes to their pocketbooks. And when they receive the necessary information, we'll see the difference in November- but more importantly after November.'

Paul Raush (USW Local 9231) is scheduling walks throughout Northwest Indiana up until the election and says, 'We're hosting labor walks, phone banks, we're sending local union mail- we're making sure our members have every opportunity to get the information they need to protect their jobs and their livelihoods in November!'

In Hammond, teachers are walking the neighborhoods around the schools. They are speaking to the parents of their students to make sure they vote.

SEIU in Lake County has fielded 100-150 members on the street each weekend registering voters. They’re shifting gears to get residents to vote early. William Bates, a retired Gary school worker and executive board member of SEIU Local 73, has been campaigning daily since before the May primary. He was part of the Heroes Campaign for Kerry in 2004 and told the World,

“We’ve been registering voters the last two months, mainly in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago but also in South Bend. We’re getting a very good response, including in South Bend.

For Obama to win, heavily unionized and Democratic Lake County, including the large African American population of Gary, will especially need to turnout in record numbers.

“There’s a lot of excitement. A lot of people that we’ve registered, if they turn out and vote it’ll make a difference. We are going door to door now making sure they do,” said Bates.

On Oct. 4 some 500 volunteers turned up to canvass Hammond and East Chicago and knocked on nearly every door. According to canvassers, Obama is getting a strong response in the white and Latino working class neighborhoods in Hammond and East Chicago, with positive responses running at least three to one. Even in more traditionally conservative areas like the majority white working class suburb of Indianapolis, Fishers, Obama is drawing strong support. Bush carried Hamilton County by a huge margin in 2004.

The Obama campaign is expecting a real dogfight between now and November 4. Regardless of the outcome, Indiana will never be the same.

jbachtell @ rednet.org.