What the Candidates Should Know About Indiana

By Nancy Nall Derringer
Monday, May 5, 2008; 10:08 AM

If you read any political stories coming out of Indiana these last couple weeks, you probably know the Daylight Saving Time joke. By now, pretty much everyone's heard it. But let's haul it out for an encore: Indiana is so conservative (how conservative is it?)... It's so conservative it's still not convinced of the necessity of Daylight Saving Time.

I lived in Indiana for 20 years, and for those 20 years there was no springing forward or falling back. In fall and winter, we were on New York time; in spring and summer, Chicago. Every so often, the issue would come up in the state legislature, usually pushed by one of the businesses that lost money by not changing (mostly broadcasters). It never got very far. Popular opinion was divided almost exactly 50-50, and in Indiana, that's no reason to change anything. (DST adoption finally was pushed through by Gov. Mitch Daniels in 2005.)

"In other states, they say, 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it,'" said Paul Helmke, executive director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and the former three-term mayor of Fort Wayne. "In Indiana, we wait until it's broken, falling down and lying on the ground rusting. Then we fix it." Maybe.

Indiana is, in many ways, the most conservative state in the country, stubbornly resistant to change of any sort. Its welfare system is run not by the state, counties or cities, but by townships -- a practice that dates to the Washington (as in George) administration. The "Milan Miracle," the 1954 David vs. Goliath high-school basketball championship game memorialized in the movie "Hoosiers," so entranced the state that it was 43 years before it dropped its single-class tournament and let schools compete with others of roughly the same size. If all the other states were jumping off a bridge, Indiana would wait until the bridge fell down before it took the plunge.

And yet, you'd be mistaken if you wrote off the state as only a GOP stronghold, the land that progressive politics forgot. Hoosiers may be happy with an 18th-century welfare-distribution system (still called "poor relief"), but they regularly send moderates and Democrats to the statehouse, even Washington. Note Helmke's current job -- promoting gun control. He's a Republican, too.

Helmke thinks the state's comfort with the tried-and-true underlines a streak of down-home practicality that protects more moderate conservatives. Maybe. While he was a popular mayor of a diverse city, he never succeeded in several runs for state and national office; rural conservatives found him too moderate and Democrat Evan Bayh's huge popularity as governor crushed him in the race that elevated Bayh to the Senate. But his point is sound: Hoosiers appreciate common-sense governance, "taking care of local business, infrastructure, and keeping your nose out of national and international issues," as Helmke put it.

People in Indiana aren't as libertarian as other conservatives; when you live close to your neighbor, it's more important to get along than to stand on principles. And they don't care so much about foreign policy, until it means body bags coming home to a state that has always supported the military. Which may be one reason the upcoming Indiana primary is so exhilarating this year.

Not only is this the first year since 1968 that a primary this late in the year meant anything, it's in a Democratic race. Indiana has always been the little red state that everyone forgot -- Republicans take it for granted; Democrats take it for lost. To have Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama traveling the state, stopping in local high schools, listening to voters is a political Halley's comet -- it might not happen again in anyone's lifetime.

After that, they can get back to arguing about Daylight Saving Time.

Nancy Nall Derringer is a writer and editor in Grosse Pointe Woods, Mich. She was a newspaper columnist in Fort Wayne, Ind., from 1984-2004.

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