My in-laws and the majority of my wife's extended family live in and around Elkhart, Indiana, or nearby in southern Michigan. I hadn't thought that Elkhart, dependent on RV manufacturing and ancillary businesses, would have been unduly affected by the double-whammy of high gas prices, but it has.
The New York Times' visit to Elkhart (http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/12/us/politics/12indiana.html?_r=2&ei=5070&emc=eta1&oref=slogin&oref=slogin) is a perfect summation of why Indiana's in play for Barack Obama, who has a legitimate shot at being the first Democrat to take the state since 1964.
Until I moved away to Vermont to attend college, the longest I ever spent outside Indiana growing up was the two months I spent in Germany between my junior and senior years in high school. Most of that time was spent in South Bend, a city whose industrial relevance died years before I was born when Studebaker fled to Canada and took its auto manufacturing jobs with it. The hulks of the abandoned Studebaker factory buildings were a part of the landscape growing up. My parents no longer live in South Bend, so Elkhart has actually become something of a de facto hometown for me; my wife and I visit there at least twice a year to see our family and friends.
Elkhart, a city of about 50,000 people about 20 miles east of South Bend, always seemed to have it better. It proudly advertised itself as the "RV Capital of the World," manufacturing recreational vehicles and also doing a brisk business in customizing vans and even the occasional Humvee. When Arnold Schwarzenegger at the height of his action movie fame took delivery of a custom Hummer, it was big news, and the work was done in Elkhart. The people there are proud of what they do, and these manufacturing and customizing jobs support innumerable other jobs for people that build, install, or otherwise handle any of the parts people want for their RVs and custom vans.
Now, though? The New York Times has described Elkhart as "the white hot center of the economic meltdown." And it's as good a choice as any, and probably better than most.
"City services are on the decline, and hold-ups are on the rise — there were nine armed robberies or attempted armed robberies on convenience stores in just the last two weeks. On Friday, the front-page news of the paper, The Elkhart Truth, was about a local plastic company that was actually not closing its plant.
The busiest spot in town seems to be the unemployment office, where 20 people stood in line on Friday and streams more passed through. Bryan and Christy Fisher were among them. The couple lost their house to foreclosure this year, then found one to rent; next week they will downsize to an apartment."
Elkhart is a middle-class, blue collar town. Middle class in the real sense, not the McCain sense. One gentleman quoted in the article has seen his work cut to 8 days a month, and is worried about how he will support his wife and 5 kids, and be able to send his oldest to college.
While there are worries that people will vote based on racial prejudice, more people quoted say they are ready for change. And that certainly jibes with what I hear talking to my various in-laws. From state issues like Gov. Mitch Daniels' privatization of the Indiana Toll Road--which many Elkhartans rely on--to the current mess, there seems little love for Republican policies. People who were always seemed solidly Republican and with whom I've had at times vigorous debate, seem open to considering Obama, if they haven't already switched over.
In his current Salon.com post, Walter Shapiro writes about ways McCain might still pull this out. I would say that if he cannot convince voters like Bryan and Christy Fisher that he has the solution to the problems that keep them up at night, he might as well start working on his concession speech.