TERRE HAUTE, Ind.—For well over a century, voters in Vigo County, Indiana, have backed the winner in almost every presidential election. They missed in 1908 and 1952, but otherwise, the county has well earned its reputation as a bellwether.
It swung from Barack Obama in 2012 to Donald Trump in 2016, and political science professor Matthew Bergbower says it’s something “akin to a purple county.”
That’s part of what has made it an effective bellwether, at least in recent decades, he said.
“We live in an evenly divided nation, and the past five presidential elections demonstrate that well with their extremely close outcomes,” Bergbower, an associate professor at Indiana State University, said in an email to The Epoch Times. He said Vigo County is fairly evenly divided between those who identify as Republicans and those who identify as Democrats.
The county, located along the Illinois border, has a mix of rural and urban demographics. It’s home to four universities, filled with many Democratic-leaning students. It also has a failing manufacturing sector with once Democratic-leaning union workers who may have found Trump’s “America First” message appealing in recent years.
And just a few miles outside the county’s urban center of Terre Haute, you’ll find a sprawl of soybean and corn farms, with a rural demographic that often leans Republican.
The county is more white than the rest of the nation—about 87 percent, compared to 76 percent nationally, according to census data. Its education level is a little lower—25 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 33 percent nationally. The median household annual income is approximately $20,000 less in the county than it is nationally.
Vigo County voters supported Trump by a 15 percent margin in 2016. Bergbower suspects Trump will win in the county by a smaller margin this year, but will win nonetheless.
“Fifteen percent is a very large gap to close,” he said.
The Epoch Times spoke with some voters in Terre Haute and surrounding towns on Oct. 20 to get a glimpse of the bellwether mood ahead of the presidential election.
‘I Should Start Voting’
Teresa Shepherd, a middle-aged woman living in Riley, just southeast of Terre Haute, has never cared much about voting. That is, until this year.
Her husband, a groundskeeper at an Army Reserve base, comes from a strongly Democratic family. Shepherd’s family, on the other hand, wasn’t much interested in politics. She only voted once, at the urging of her husband, when they got married about 30 years ago.
“I don’t watch TV. I don’t listen to the news. It’s just too depressing, too much bad and evil going on in the world,” Shepherd told The Epoch Times.
This year, after seeing the country shut down amid the pandemic, and seeing riots break out in many cities, “I just think it’s time that I should start voting,” she said.
“I just want Trump in. I just think there’s going to be a lot of problems if he doesn’t become our president … all the violence and the riots. I feel that if Trump is president again, that will cease. I hope.”
Shepherd said being able to bear arms is of particular importance now and she fears Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden would restrict that right.
“If riots break out in our area and we don’t have firearms, how are we going to protect our family and ourselves?”
She thinks economic distress from COVID-19 will fuel more unrest.
“It’s going to cause stealing, probably more riots, and all that.”
“We’ve had flu around forever, different strains of it. My opinion is that’s just what it is,” Shepherd said of COVID-19. “I think it’s very political right now, honestly. And the media is just taking it overboard.”
Shepherd said of Trump: “I do know that he is not a selfish person. He doesn’t take the money; he’s got the money. I think he is more for giving to the people.”
She said her husband will vote for Trump, too.
“He says he’s going to vote for the lesser of two evils.”
In Terre Haute, 52-year-old Scott Hamilton said the main issue for him in this election is how divided the nation is; he said Trump is mostly to blame.
‘We Have Become So Divided’
“It’s difficult to have a conversation nowadays without really stirring up emotions, and that’s probably my main issue,” Hamilton told The Epoch Times as he stood in downtown Terre Haute. “We have become so divided. … I have not seen any division like this [before].”
“I believe that is because of our current president, so my main issue is that he does not stay president.”
Hamilton had already cast his vote for Biden on the first day of early voting.
“If I look back on my life, there is a swing toward the right, and then it swings back toward the left. Rarely are we really stuck with people in leadership that are fairly moderate.
“Now, just because my president is Republican, I expected a swing to the right, but what we have now—they broke the whole pendulum. I’m not even sure what direction we’re going.”
Hamilton sees value in both parties, he said, but he considers himself Democratic-leaning. He likes how the Democratic Party helps lower-income people.
“Being poor, I do believe that we need a stable safety net for people. I believe in what they call entitlement programs,” Hamilton said. “I just got on Social Security disability, because I can’t work anymore. That is a very good thing to have.
“I don’t think you should take that away from me.”
He said he’s had trouble getting a job for much of his life, because he was found guilty of a felony drug offense as a young man. He thinks the current criminal justice system imprisons too many people.
“The way the system works now, if you get in as a young person on something small, it’s very hard to get out. And it’s just so easy to snowball it to where chances are, if you’re not very careful and work very hard in the other direction, you may just [continue a life of crime].”
He’s happy about the passage of the First Step Act, criminal justice reform that Trump signed into law in 2018, which includes decreased sentences for some drug crimes, and also makes it easier to get out of prison early for good behavior. But Hamilton thinks more changes are needed.
In West Terre Haute, across the Wabash River from Terre Haute, Bobby Tisdell, a 38-year-old forklift driver, plans to cast his first vote on Election Day. He says he’ll vote for Trump.
‘I Think He Is for America’
“Since Trump got voted in, it was when I started getting into politics,” Tisdell told The Epoch Times while sitting in his garage. “All the negativity, and just pure anger for this one person in office … I have never seen it before.
“Why are you trying so hard to get this one guy out of office?” he said of the disproven Russian collusion accusations and the president’s impeachment. “He doesn’t seem like a really bad guy. He is just outspoken and doesn’t filter what he is saying.”
Tisdell wanted to find out for himself, so he began to do his own research, reading mainstream news on both sides, as well as reports by independent citizen journalists.
“I’m looking at both sides of it. I’m seeing more hate for this man than he has hated anyone,” Tisdell said. “I don’t think he has done that bad of a job. I’ve heard all the whiners complaining about what he’s doing, but I haven’t really seen anything hardcore.
“They see it as just a show, but I think he is for America. I am under that impression. … You’re not getting anybody perfect. But as for America, I feel he would do the best job.”
For Tisdell, the two major issues that weigh on his mind this year are the riots and the pandemic. He likes that Trump upholds law and order amid the social unrest. As for the pandemic, he doesn’t think Trump has done a bad job on that.
“They can try all they can to prevent whatever they want to prevent, but nature is going to run its course, no matter what,” Tisdell said. “Just like a hurricane, you can try to prepare for it the best you can, but you never know what kind of damage it is going to cause.
“Even wearing a mask, you’re still not certain. … Half the people are just wearing rags on top of their face. They are not even the regular masks to filter it out. That doesn’t make sense to me,” Tisdell said. “And to force somebody to do it, it just makes even less sense, because this country is supposed to be free.”
Jeff Myers, a lifelong Vigo County resident in Riley, on the other hand, won’t let the big events of the day, such as riots and the pandemic, determine his vote. Since he became a Christian in the mid-1990s, he said he’s used his moral compass to determine his vote.
‘I Tend to Vote My Morals’
“I tend to vote my morals,” Myers told The Epoch Times. “I cannot support a candidate that is not pro-life.” Pro-life is one of the top items on his list of issues.
He considers Trump pro-life. He isn’t so sure about Biden.
“Biden has talked both ways, so it’s hard for me to really grasp where he is on the issue. … If he does not answer that issue clearly, I will not vote for him.”
Supreme Court nominees also matter a lot to Myers in this election. He’s pleased with the last two—Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett—by Trump.
Though Myers leans toward Trump, he hasn’t made up his mind to vote for him yet; he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016. Myers’s morals include being respectful to others, and he thinks Trump has failed in that regard.
“The insulting back and forth really bothers me about any candidate,” Myers said. His message to Trump is: “Shut up and quit twittering. He is his own worst enemy.”
But Myers doesn’t think Biden is respectful to Trump either. He isn’t happy that Biden called Trump names during the first debate.
“The way he spoke to President Trump bothers me even more, because he’s speaking to my president. Whether you respect the man or not, he is still the president of the United States and you should respect that.”
His morals also include being honest, and he is bothered by what he sees as lies coming from both candidates.
“It seems that I’m having to think about who’s lying the least,” Myers said. “It’s kind of like used-car salesmen: if their lips are moving, they’re probably lying.”
He said he finds it hard to believe Biden’s claim that he never talked to his son Hunter Biden about his deals in Ukraine and China.
“I find that hard to believe. As a father, I would be curious about what my kids are doing.”
Myers works as an electrician and long supported the Democratic Party along with his union. When he became a Christian, he struggled with his union’s blind support for Democratic candidates, most of whom aren’t pro-life, he said. He has since assessed each candidate on their moral stances, he said, rather than by party affiliation.
For Brendon, another resident of Riley who declined to disclose his last name, his spiritual belief will lead him not to vote at all this year. He didn’t vote in 2016 either.
‘The Power Is Out of Our Hands’
“I believe in a time cycle. Things happen for a reason, and it’s out of our control until things change,” Brendon told The Epoch Times.
“We’re going to shift from a materialistic world to a more conscious and spiritual world,” he said. “It will cycle through. There is nothing we can do about it; the power is out of our hands.”
In 2016, nearly 100 million eligible Americans didn’t vote. That’s about 43 percent of the eligible voters in the country, according to a study of nonvoters overseen by professors at Tufts University and Stony Brook University.
Paul, a 51-year-old resident in Seelyville—just east of Terre Haute—who also didn’t disclose his last name, won’t vote either.
“I don’t think my vote counts,” he told The Epoch Times. “I think it worked out without me.”
He was an apprentice and then a journeyman in a local steamfitters union for about 10 years before he was laid off. Soon, he lost his union membership because he had no money to pay the dues.
“When you were in the union, they always wanted you to vote for Democrats,” Paul said. “I quit voting once out of the union.”
He worked for a tree service company for some years, but was laid off again. He soon lost his car, because he fell behind on license plate fees.
Since then, he has been doing odd jobs, such as cutting grass or trimming trees for neighbors. He was working on his neighbor’s lawn when he paused to talk to The Epoch Times.
“I got a life. It’s just not that great,” Paul said. “There isn’t anything I can do to change it or to make it better by voting.”
Paul hopes that one day he can save enough money to buy himself a car, so he can drive to Florida and reunite with his family.