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.”