RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
In this election year, we've been hearing a lot from voters around the country expressing frustration with the tone of politics today.
NPR's Debbie Elliott set out to revisit Brownstown, Indiana, where she first spoke with voters during the 1998 congressional elections - another acrimonious time.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: Fourteen years ago, Ann Clodfelter was directing the Jackson County Homemakers Extension Chorus, as they prepared for an upcoming concert.
ANN CLODFELTER: Altos, you need to scoop more.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Yeah, I know.
ELLIOTT: The Republican-controlled Congress, under then-Speaker Newt Gingrich, was preparing to impeach Democratic President Clinton Bill Clinton. Much of the campaign rhetoric that year focused on the subject, a sore spot at the time for Ann Clodfelter.
CLODFELTER: It's probably harder to vote the issues than any year because you don't hear about the issues.
ELLIOTT: In 1998, Clodfelter and other chorus members said they wanted to hear less about Monica Lewinsky, and more about subjects like education and the rising cost of health care. Today, Clodfelter still sits at a piano, now directing the choir at Brownstown Presbyterian Church
CLODFELTER: OK, let's do it on lu...
(SOUNDBITE OF PIANO)
CLODFELTER: ...parts. Ready?
(SOUNDBITE OF CHURCH CHOIR)
ELLIOTT: And just like 14 years ago, she's finding it hard to engage in this year's election because she doesn't think the candidates are articulating substantive agendas.
CLODFELTER: If you can't do a 30-second soundbite, you're not going to do any good. And that's not what I need to know.
ELLIOTT: Ann Clodfelter is 73 years old, a retired schoolteacher. Her husband, Don Clodfelter, is 78, also retired after running the local electric co-op for more than a quarter of a century.
This part of south Indiana is known as a Democratic enclave in a mostly Republican state, but the Clodfelters don't identify with either party.
DON CLODFELTER: I'm a registered independent. I have never, ever voted a straight ticket and I've never, ever missed an election.
ELLIOTT: The couple voted for John McCain in 2008 because they say he was more experienced than then-candidate Barack Obama. Another sore spot for Ann Clodfelter is the divisive political climate today. She complains criticism of the president is too often chalked up to racism.
CLODFELTER: I get frustrated with the color card - and people who voted for Obama because he was black, people who voted against him because he was black. I did not vote against him. I voted for McCain.
ELLIOTT: They're not going to vote for President Obama. But they haven't galvanized behind any of the Republican candidates, either. Don Clodfelter says he's looking for someone who can tackle the economy
DON CLODFELTER: We need a CEO - a really good manager.
(SOUNDBITE OF STREET NOICSES)
ELLIOTT: Brownstown is the Jackson County seat but only has about 3,000 residents. It's a scenic region, where the flat White River Valley meets rolling hills and knobs near the Kentucky border.
DON CLODFELTER: This is Main Street. This used to be the stoplight.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
DON CLODFELTER: And I guess we've got progress 'cause we've got another one there...
ELLIOTT: On a driving tour of town, Clodfelter points out a new steel company, but says a lot of the older industries are now gone.
DON CLODFELTER: We had a paper mill here for many years, and it is no longer functioning. And we had a cannery here, and it's no longer functioning.
ELLIOTT: There's talk of a new company restarting the paper mill. But, he says, for the most part, workers in Brownstown have to travel to bigger cities for jobs. It's happening in small towns throughout the region.
JACK MONTGOMERY: The Heartland is left behind.
ELLIOTT: That's Jack Montgomery, a friend of the Clodfelters. He says no one is looking out for rural America anymore.
JACK MONTGOMERY: Our legislators - once they leave here and are in D.C. for two years, they've lost all touch with reality. They've gotten to be a part of that machine and the lobby group and the income level that you see in D.C.
ELLIOTT: Montgomery, who is 66, retired last year after 33 years at the local bank.
JACK MONTGOMERY: Something needs to be done. They've got to curtail spending and quit bailing out the big guys. Had we failed, a $150 million bank, they'd have said oops, your stockholders are going to take a loss. But when a big bank starts to fail they say oh, we've got to bail them out; they're too big to fail. Why? Their stockholders should take the loss, too.
ELLIOTT: His wife, Maryanne Montgomery, says it seems as though big corporations and political leaders don't play by the same rules that apply to the rest of the country. She says in real life, people have to work together and find compromise for the greater good.
MARYANNE MONTGOMERY: I think it's a crime that the two parties have to constantly fight one another - that there is no compromise going on; therefore, nothing gets accomplished. Everything is stymied.
ELLIOTT: The Montgomerys say they've yet to see a presidential candidate, from either party, who appears ready to put partisan differences aside for the good of the Heartland.
Debbie Elliott, NPR News.