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Indiana Is Weird

In the last week, Indiana has played an unusually central role in the presidential primary, with Hoosiers watching as Ted Cruz and John Kasich forged a deal while Donald Trump exhumed Bobby Knight. One thing the campaigns (and many pundits) seem to agree on is that Indiana, which votes Tuesday, represents an extension of previous Midwestern races. “This is just re-running Wisconsin,” one Cruz adviser told National Review. “We have a blueprint, and it works.”

But that’s not quite right.

I’ve lived in Indiana my whole life, outside of a few years passed on the East Coast in grad school, and I have to say: All the attention has been nice. It’s nice to be noticed, however fleetingly, for something other than hosting sporting events and being a part of Abraham Lincoln’s formative years.

The Lincoln who’s most relevant in the upcoming primary, though, is Abe’s father, Thomas. For more than a decade, Thomas and his family lived in Indiana, and as I’ve watched the politicians and pundits try to figure Indiana out I’ve thought a lot about Thomas. Indiana, which is 86 percent white, may seem demographically similar to nearby states like Ohio (83 percent white) and Wisconsin (88 percent white). But, in truth, Indiana is a much stranger place than it’s given credit for, with a history and heritage that divide it from other Midwestern states. The Hoosier State was settled from the south and isolated from cultural change, and you can still see the effects of that today. In fact, that’s why it’s actually pretty hard to predict how Indiana will vote in its primary. That’s why, if you really want to understand Indiana, you need to go back to the time of Thomas Lincoln.

Thomas moved from Kentucky to Indiana in 1816, the same year Indiana became a state. The direction of that move is crucial to making sense of Indiana today.

A lot of Americans were moving in the first part of the 19th century. After decades of frontier violence, after unfair treaties with the Native Americans, after new laws that allowed for the buying or claiming of land, the Midwest finally opened up. Of course, no one called it the “Midwest” since it was not yet the middle of anything. It was the west, the fertile expanse that came to be called the Old Northwest: Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Among those states, and from the very beginning, Indiana was unusual. The Ohio River made it easier for Southerners to enter, and they settled the state from the bottom up. Thomas Lincoln was born in Virginia, migrating from there to Kentucky and then to southern Indiana. It was a typical itinerary, and Thomas was a typical early Hoosier. He worked with his hands, mainly farming and carpentry. But he never worked more than he had to. One neighbor described him as “a piddler — always doing but doing nothing great.” Another called him “a plain, unpretending, plodding man.” Thomas seemed content with his small, windowless log cabin. He cleared and farmed only a portion of his property, just enough to feed his family and to occasionally donate some crops to the Little Pigeon Baptist Church, where the Lincolns went to hear hours-long sermons on God’s role in their everyday lives. As a boy, Abraham Lincoln liked to come home and spoof those sermons, down to each preacher’s gestures and cadence. Thomas didn’t like that. He scolded his son, just as he did when Abraham tried to read a borrowed book. “I suppose that Abe is still fooling himself with education,” Thomas said later in life. “I tried to stop it, but he had got that fool idea in his head, and it can’t be got out.”

Thomas Lincoln — Southern, working-class, anti-intellectual, religiously devout — made a more honest representative Hoosier than his son ever did. The prevalence of people like Thomas is also what made Indiana unusual. In 1850, census canvassers started asking Americans where they’d been born, and by looking at state residents who were born in the U.S. (but not in their current state), we can see just how much Indiana stood apart from its neighbors in the Old Northwest. Let’s start with people born in New England, the “Yankees” widely considered to be better educated and more ambitious than their peers. In 1850, only 3 percent of Indiana’s U.S.-born residents hailed from New England. (The Old Northwest average was 10 percent.) Only 20 percent of Indiana’s U.S.-born residents hailed from Mid-Atlantic states such as Pennsylvania and New York. (The Old Northwest average was 42 percent.) But a whopping 44 percent of Indiana’s U.S.-born residents hailed from the South — easily the highest percentage in the Old Northwest, where the average was 28 percent.1

Just as important as their numerical advantage, the Southerners got to Indiana first and thus dominated its early politics. (At the state’s constitutional convention, 34 of the 43 delegates hailed from below the Mason-Dixon Line.) They created its local culture, shaping everything from what Hoosiers ate to how they worshipped. (Southerners imported their Baptist and Methodist beliefs, and in the 1850 census 60 percent of Indiana churches belonged to those denominations.) More than any other Midwestern state, Indiana ended up with a certain kind of citizenry: white, working-class Protestants with Southern roots.

And the thing is, it never really changed. Consider the wave of immigration that defined America starting in the 1880s. Indiana had always been the least diverse state in the Old Northwest. And yet, even after millions of Europeans arrived by steamship, were processed at Ellis Island, and scattered across the country, Indiana still featured a foreign-born population of just 3 percent. (The Old Northwest average was approaching 20 percent.) Or consider the rise of the modern city. In 1920, Chicago’s population was 2.7 million; Cleveland’s was 800,000. Indianapolis’s, by contrast, was only 314,194. But Indianapolis wasn’t just smaller — it was more provincial, less vibrant, a city with a population that was only 3 percent African-American and 70 percent native-born and white. (In Chicago and Cleveland, the share of native-born whites was about 25 percent.) Writer Kurt Vonnegut, born in 1922, summed up his Indianapolis childhood this way: “It was the 500-mile Speedway Race, and then 364 days of miniature golf, and then the 500-mile Speedway Race again.”

In the 21st century, Indiana has started to shift in some small ways. It now boasts more residents who were born outside of the state than Ohio or Michigan does. (Indiana also scores better than them on some measures of racism.) More striking, though, are the ways in which Indiana has stayed the same. Among its Old Northwestern peers, Indiana ranks last in median family income. It ranks last in the percentage of residents who’ve completed a bachelor’s degree. It ranks first in the share of the population that is white Evangelical Protestant and in the share of residents who identify as conservative. On these and a host of other measures — percentage of homes without broadband internet, rate of teen pregnancy, rate of divorce — you’ll often see Indiana finishing closer to Kentucky or Tennessee than to Ohio or Wisconsin. In other words, you’ll see 200 years of history making its presence known.

Indiana 26% 40% 25%
Ohio 21 37 27
Michigan 19 34 27
Wisconsin 17 37 28
Illinois 13 31 33
One of these states is not like the others
Illinois $71,796 76% 10%
Wisconsin 67,187 75 7
Ohio 62,300 74 8
Michigan 62,143 73 9
Indiana 60,780 71 12

Sources: 2014 U.S. Census Bureau, 2015 Gallup, 2015 American Values Atlas

A lot of those factors correlate with support for Trump. (Another way to say this is that Thomas Lincoln would have probably voted for The Donald.) The Hoosier State has lots of manufacturing — the most in the country, by some measures — and that seems good for Trump, too. Yet the Evangelical presence could be promising for Cruz (with the caveat that Indiana scores lower on church attendance). And then there’s Cruz’s deal with Kasich, though it’s somewhat muddled by the preferences of the state’s delegates (and by Kasich’s own statements).

For all of these reasons, Indiana remains a tough primary to call. But the toughest factor is the state’s own essential strangeness. What do I think, as a native son? I think Trump will do better here than most pundits predict. But I also think those pundits should spend less time talking about Trump and more time trying to understand our complicated, diverse, historically messy (and yet ultimately endearing) 50 states.


  1. These numbers come from the excellent scholarship of Gregory S. Rose, who points out that even this 44 percent figure undersells the South’s influence in Indiana. After all, the state’s remaining U.S.-born Hoosiers hailed from neighboring states such as Ohio, which meant they often had Southern roots of their own.