Elkhart, Indiana

If you want to understand how Barack Obama won the 2008 election–and how the great changes he talks about the United States making over the next four years can be achieved–come to Indiana and meet Luke the Plumber. Unlike the media darling Joe the Plumber, who wasn’t really a plumber and who favored John McCain, Luke Lefever is a licensed plumber who spent many hours this fall volunteering for Obama. Lefever’s hometown of Elkhart is in northern Indiana, traditionally a very red area of a very red state; no Democrat had won a presidential election here since Lyndon Johnson in 1964. In the more distant past, Indiana was a stronghold of the Ku Klux Klan, which still has local followers, said Lefever: “Up until a few years ago, the mother of the Klan’s Grand Wizard lived in Goshen [five miles from Elkhart]. She sewed all of their uniforms.”

But Elkhart, like much of Indiana, has been suffering economically. The city is the nation’s capital of recreational vehicle manufacturing; driving into town, you pass a plant whose parking lot is filled with long rows of brand-new, unsold Hummers. This year’s rise in gasoline prices hammered Elkhart; unemployment doubled over the past twelve months, to 9.3 percent. Sensing an opportunity, the national Obama campaign invested heavily in Elkhart County, sending the candidate there twice and putting four paid organizers on the ground in the city. Comparable efforts were made in other strategically chosen areas of Indiana. Buoyed by 80,000 volunteers, this commitment to grassroots organizing yielded one of the great surprises of the election: Indiana went for Obama by 27,000 votes.

When I reached Elkhart late in the afternoon on election day, Lefever was pacing the sidewalk in front of the precinct office, a modest bungalow in a black working-class neighborhood. Cellphone to his ear, the plumber, a white, married father of two, was telling a fellow campaign worker that a car full of volunteers would soon leave to surround a nearby polling station. “We want to make sure that everyone in line to vote at 6 pm–the hour polls close in Indiana–is able to vote,” as state law prescribed, he said. “We’ve seen awesome turnout in the six precincts we’re working,” Lefever told me, emphasizing that he was but one member of the team of activists here. “We’re estimating it could be 400 percent higher than in 2004″ in one heavily nonwhite precinct. In fact, turnout in that precinct was almost 500 percent higher. “In 2004, Bush won 70 percent of the vote in Elkhart County,” Lefever said two days later. “This year, McCain won only 55 percent of the vote. By shaving [the Republican] margin here, we helped Obama win the state.”

“Obama didn’t write off Indiana, and he didn’t write off Elkhart,” said Jonathan Swain, former communications director for the Obama campaign in Indiana. “If you look on an Indiana map at which counties went red and which went blue in this election, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Fifteen of Indiana’s ninety-two counties went for Obama; seventy-seven counties went for McCain. But we ran a ninety-two county campaign. And in county after county, Obama made McCain’s margin of victory smaller, in some cases much smaller, than Bush’s margins were in 2004. Then Obama won big in the more urban areas of the state by turning out every vote we could there.”

The Elkhart precincts I visited were heavily African-American and Latino, but the county as a whole is predominantly white. The Obama campaign made a point of appealing to both constituencies, employing the same two-track strategy it applied throughout the state. In essence, Obama won Indiana by reaching out to white voters who traditionally had not voted Democratic–independents and Republicans feeling the economic pinch–and by getting hundreds of thousands of first-time voters to go to the polls. The Indiana secretary of state’s postelection data show there were 345,632 new voters in 2008. That’s about 13 percent of the total turnout of 2.7 million. More to the point, it’s roughly equal to how much better Obama did in 2008 than John Kerry did in 2004. In 2004 Bush won 1,479,438 votes in Indiana and beat Kerry 60 to 39 percent. In 2008 McCain scored only slightly less than Bush did four years before, but Obama won 398,492 more votes than Kerry did–enough for a 1 percent victory margin.

The McCain campaign and top Indiana Republicans never knew what hit them; they had only contempt for community organizing. As late as mid-September, senior McCain officials in Indiana were saying that Obama had no chance and was only spending time and money there to force McCain to do so as well. “We want [the GOP] to put resources in the true battleground states,” Kevin Ober, the Indiana Republican Party’s executive director, told Time magazine. Before 2008, the national Democratic Party was just as close-minded about Indiana, said Luke the Plumber. “Indiana had not gone Democratic for president in my lifetime, so the party just gave up on us,” said Lefever, a grinning 35-year-old, who added that he had never before worked on a political campaign. “This election is the first time we had TV ads in Indiana. Democrats were essentially disenfranchised here. People saw no point in voting or getting involved because we were bound to lose. But Obama put real resources into Indiana, and now we get a say in what happens here.”

Three lessons stand out from Obama’s victory in Indiana. First, do not write off places that have traditionally voted Republican–compete in all fifty states, as long advocated by outgoing Democratic Party national chairman Howard Dean. Second, invest in grassroots community organizing and empower local volunteers. “Some people made light of the community organizing approach this campaign took, but look at Indiana and you see the power of neighbors talking to neighbors,” Swain said. “TV ads are important, but you are much more apt to listen when it’s your neighbors talking about why they support Obama.” And finally, give people a candidate worth voting for. “People in Indiana were tired of Bush, and the economic crisis made them ready for a new direction,” said Lefever. “But that wasn’t enough. Obama showed people he understood the problems they faced, and he offered new ideas for confronting those problems. I think that’s why we won.”