INDIANAPOLIS — Perhaps a group of 120 Purdue University students knew before the final votes were tallied Tuesday why Republican Mike Braun might beat Joe Donnelly in Indiana's U.S. Senate race.
In three words: President Donald Trump.
Political science students went to Tippecanoe County polls to conduct exit interviews with voters. Among their questions, the students asked if voters would cast a ballot for Trump if his re-election was being held Tuesday.
Only a third of those polled in the "purple" county said they would vote for the president. Of that amount, about 91 percent said they backed Braun, said James McCann, professor in the Department of Political Science at Purdue.
"At least in the minds of these voters ... Trump was joined at the hip with Braun," McCann said.
"I guess that’s not surprising except to say that Braun, a first-time candidate basically came out, beat two traditional partisans in the primary and he’s gotten now completely twinned with Trump. Talk about acceleration in terms of the public view,” added McCann, who teaches a course on political campaigns.
Overall, the students' exit polling successfully scored a win for Donnelly in Tippecanoe County. Although results aren't official, Tippecanoe County was one of eight in Indiana that voted for Donnelly.
Across the state, Braun won with about 53 percent of the vote. Donnelly took 43 percent and Libertarian Lucy Brenton received 4 percent.
“I think it just showed that Republicans are tightening their hold on Indiana," Brandon Smith, statehouse reporter for Indiana Public Broadcasting, said. "I think that Joe Donnelly was the most conservative Democrat probably that Indiana has to offer, and it really wasn’t close in the end."
"I think the tone and the messaging of his campaign did get more conservative as it went along particularly over the last month," Smith said.
In the two weeks before the election, President Trump campaigned for Republicans in three counties. Braun won in two of those: Allen and Vanderburgh. He lost in the third, Marion County.
Trump rallies, as well as appearances by Vice President Mike Pence, a former governor of Indiana, were perhaps as much a factor as Indiana turning red.
"I don't Braun could have won it without Trump showing up," said Brian Howey, publisher of Howey Politics Indiana. "If he had come here that often and Braun had lost, that would have been a real embarrassment for both he and Pence."
Tuesday’s red wave signals more than a midterm victory. “We’re becoming a one-party state," Howey said. “Joe Donnelly is kind of like right now the death knell of the Bayh-era Democratic Party. It no longer exists.”
Howey, whose column appears in numerous Indiana news outlets, was taken, too, by the Republican presence in rural counties. He noted that some "doughnut" counties surrounding Trump visit sites drew as much of 70 percent of the vote for Braun.
In 2012, only 45 percent of Allen County voters went for Donnelly with 49 percent voting for Republican Richard Mourdock, who eventually lost the race. On Tuesday, Donnelly received about 44 percent of the Allen County vote, compared to Braun's 52 percent.
But the overall vote may reflect Hoosier views on the confirmation of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, which Donnelly opposed.
“I think the Brett Kavanaugh thing was devastating to Donnelly," Howey said. "It really ignited the Republican intensity and that just killed him.”
State Republicans took advantage of the Kavanaugh controversy, tying Kavanaugh support with loyalty to Trump.
"I don’t think it was the only thing that put Braun over the edge," said Laura Merrifield Wilson, assistant professor of political science at the University of Indianapolis.
She likens factors to Trump winning Indiana in 2016 by 19 percentage points over Democrat Hillary Clinton.
"Would those Trump voters come again and would they support a candidate who looks and sounds like, but is not actually, President Trump? And the answer to that is a resounding yes," she said. "The role that the president played here can't be denied."
Forming a challenge to Donnelly began early, recalled Indiana Republican Party Chair Kyle Hupfer.
"I think there was a really solid plan that was put in place," Hupfer said. "We started early, even before we had a candidate, to define Joe Donnelly, let Hoosiers know who he really is, how he votes when he's in Washington, and how that doesn't match. I think all that came to bear when they got to observe him first-hand in the Kavanaugh hearings."
But Hupfer says the Republican brand in Indiana is due to a strong party team that made 30 stops on a statewide tour in the last few weeks, including three days of appearances by Gov. Eric Holcomb. The party made 2.5 million contacts with Hoosier voters this year, he said. Visits by Trump and Pence energized the vote, Hupfer said.
"It's a unique trust that Hoosiers have given to the Republican Party at this point with super-majorities and every statewide office. We need to that take that responsibility seriously and we need to strive to continue to be transparent and open and driven by metrics and deliver results for Hoosiers," Hupfer said.