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Indiana is not the solid red state everyone thinks it is

Associated Press, REUTERS, Getty images

From left: Ted Cruz, Donald Trump, and John Kasich.

By James Pindell Globe Staff 

As the Republican presidential primaries head into the homestretch, there are just two states that matter politically or logistically: Indiana and California.

Indiana, which holds its presidential primary Tuesday, is the last opportunity for Republicans who dislike Donald Trump to show why he should not be the GOP nominee. These forces were able to put together a win for Senator Ted Cruz in the Wisconsin primary, but that was nearly a month ago. Trump has won six primaries since then.

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And then, on the final primary voting day in June, California will in all likelihood decide whether Trump will have enough delegates to become the Republican nominee on the first ballot at the national convention in Cleveland this summer.

But for the next few days, all eyes will be on Indiana for the first time in modern Republican presidential campaign history. As the candidates make as many references as possible to basketball, the state’s beloved sport, their campaigns will quickly learn that Indiana politics are more complicated than they may appear.

For example, Trump may learn the hard way that former Indiana University basketball coach Bobby Knight is not universally loved in the state. But at least Trump didn’t call a basketball hoop a “ring,” as Cruz did.

Here are some dynamics to watch ahead of the GOP primary in Indiana:

The GOP is splintered

For several years now in Indiana, there’s been an ideological fight for the party’s priorities. One wing is represented by former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, a Republican who once called for the party to have a “truce” on social issues. When Daniels was term-limited out of office in 2013, he was succeeded by current Governor Mike Pence, who has pushed his Republican Party to be among the most aggressive on social issues.

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Daniels’s focus on economic issues and Pence’s focus on social issues provide an appropriate backdrop for the Trump and Cruz fight. Trump will target voters frustrated that the state’s manufacturing industry has dried up over the last 40 years. Cruz is trying to appeal to social conservatives who say they are losing legislative battles at home and in the US Supreme Court.

The ‘doughnut’ decides Republican primaries

Indianapolis has the most concentrated area of Democrats in the state, but the surrounding collar counties are known as the doughnut. This is where Republican primaries are won or lost in Indiana — and especially so in this primary, thanks to the way the GOP allocates its delegates.

The statewide winner on Tuesday gets 30 at-large delegates for the first ballot at the Republican National Convention. The remaining 27 delegates are handed out by each of the state’s nine congressional districts. The winner of each district gets three delegates.

The Indianapolis media market hits five congressional districts. For this reason, candidates running for statewide office typically camp out in greater Indianapolis. This is essentially what Trump has done.

Social conservatives reign in the south and northeast

Politically speaking, Indiana is many different states. Outside of Indianapolis, residents can associate with Chicago, Cincinnati, or Louisville, depending on where they are located. It’s in the rural areas and small towns in between these parts where Cruz’s social conservative stances should play well.

For example, in northeastern Indiana near Fort Wayne, voters have elected many hard-core conservatives, including Vice President Dan Quayle.

There’s also southern Indiana, sometimes known as “Kentuckiana” given its proximity to the Bluegrass State. That region’s politics are closer to those of the Republican South than the industrial Midwest.

On the other hand, the communities in the northwest part of the state, including Gary, are seen by many Hoosiers — especially Republicans — as an extension of Chicago. Lawmakers have long put the region in the Windy City’s time zone instead of with the rest of the state.

It’s unlikely any Republicans will visit this area anyway: There are few Republicans there. But there are three delegates in that area’s congressional district — same as every other one in the state.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his daily e-mail update on the 2016 campaign at www.bostonglobe.com/groundgame