RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When it comes to picking presidents, no place matches the national vote as closely as Vigo County, Indiana. With just two exceptions, voters there have sided with the winning candidates in every election since 1892. And for nearly a half century, the results in the county have largely mirrored the national vote. So NPR's Howard Berkes traveled to Vigo, County last week to hear what voters there plan to do in next month's election.
HOWARD BERKES: Vigo County, Indiana, may be the nation's most consistent bellwether, but it's not sending clear signals now. Just ask C. Joseph Anderson, an attorney and veteran Democratic activist in the county seat of Terre Haute.
Mr. C. JOSEPH ANDERSON (Attorney, Terre Haute, Longtime Democratic Activist): I have less of a handle on it at this time than I have at any time in the past. I always kind of had a feeling who was going to win, but I don't this time.
BERKES: And veteran Republican activists agree, including Jim Bopp, a Terre Haute attorney who represents national conservative candidates and groups. He describes a mix of allegiances that makes Vigo County voters split their votes.
Mr. JIM BOPP (Attorney, Terre Haute): On a local level, it's predominantly Democrat by a significant margin. In Federal races it's much more Republican and that is because there is a significant portion of Democrats who are socially and culturally conservative. And in races that that matters, they tend to vote Republican.
BERKES: But this is one of those elections where conservative social and cultural values don't seem to matter as much. At least that's how Judith McDonald sees it. We met at one of Vigo County's ubiquitous auctions.
BERKES: McDonald is a retired grocery clerk who recites a Vigo County mantra.
Ms. JUDITH MCDONALD (Resident, Vigo County): I'm for the person. It's not strictly one party for what they stand for. It's the person.
BERKES: And this year, McDonald plans to vote for Barack Obama despite two elections supporting George Bush.
Ms. MCDONALD: Because he did not believe in abortion and being a Christian, but there's just been too much other stuff go on that we don't need somebody else in there that's going to follow the same plan.
BERKES: Vigo County has been hit hard by plant closings and people are leaving. The county also has more than 10,000 college students, the kind of people Obama attracts. He's even campaigned here, but he does not dominate. Rhonda Fivecoat(ph) is a stay-at-home mom in Terre Haute.
Ms. RHONDA FIVECOAT (Resident, Terre Haute): I feel that I would probably vote for McCain, simply because I think that he has more of an understanding of what the country's needing at this point and because he's been through, being in the war himself, being a war prisoner, things like that. I think he has more experience.
BERKES: Fivecoat waits in a smoky American Legion hall for one of Vigo County's you ubiquitous bingo nights. She likes what Barack Obama says about health care, but some things make her uncomfortable.
Ms. FIVECOAT: Some of the things I've heard about the Muslim background does - that's kind of scary. Terrorists have been from those countries and things like that.
BERKES: As the bingo balls load and the games begin, the talk ends. Fivecoat wasn't alone here in her confusion about Obama's faith. He's always been a Christian. There's also wariness about his race. Fred Bauer is a veteran Democratic activist who is part of a weekly bipartisan lunch at a Terre Haute café. He refers to the fact that the Ku Klux Klan was once active here.
Mr. FRED BAUER (Attorney and Veteran Democratic Activist, Terre Haute): Even though we don't have a Klan going down, we aren't visibly bigoted, but I think there are lot of underlying sentiments that's anti-black.
BERKES: The Republicans at the table agree that this could be a factor for Obama.
Mr. BAUER: If he were a white man, I would say he'd be way out in front here and nationally.
BERKES: There are other parallels with national sentiment. Vigo County has all those Obama-energized students, but how many of them will actually vote? How will those conservative Democrats swing? How will a tough economy play out? These are the same questions that will decide the election nationally, so there's a fair chance, it seems, that Vigo County will continue to be the nation's most accurate bellwether. Howard Berkes, NPR News, Terre Haute, Indiana.
MONTAGNE: And to read more analysis about battleground states and counties, check out npr.org's interactive election map where you can test your own predictions.
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