One of the primary political experts on the MSNBC's stage at Centre College during coverage of Thursday's vice presidential debate was making a return trip to the state where his career in journalism got its start.
Howard Fineman, editorial director of Huffington Post and a frequent contributor to the cable network, got to know Kentucky politics during a stint with the Courier-Journal that started in 1973. Fineman became well versed in Kentucky's political culture before moving to Washington, D.C., to work in the newspaper's bureau there.
Fineman, who ultimately left the Courier to take a job with Newsweek magazine in 1980, has kept an eye on the state. During a brief interview about Kentucky voter attitudes headed into next month's election, Fineman said the likely Republican landslide in presidential balloting was indicative of the jaundiced eye many have toward the federal government.
"Kentuckians rely on a lot of federal programs and support a lot of basic ideas of the Democratic Party," Fineman said. "What they worry about is that they don't have enough of a say in the way those programs work, or the way other people use these programs, and they don't like unaccountable power or distant bureaucracies. They are independent minded as individuals who are used to a more personal kind of politics. It's been hard for the national Democratic Party to square that circle."
Although there are about 1.5 registered Democrats for every Republican in the state, Mitt Romney is still polling ahead of President Barack Obama by double digits and expected to clean up in November. Both of Kentucky's senators, Rand Paul and Mitch McConnell, are now members of the GOP, albeit seemingly different wings of it. Since 1972, Kentucky has also voted for the Republican presidential candidate every time accept Jimmy Carter in 1976 and Bill Clinton, twice, in 1992 and 1996.
Few states benefit more from federal dollars, but Fineman said Kentucky's people tend to resent and distrust a system they feel they have no control over. He believes voters have sent an increasingly Republican delegation to Washington to critique and question the federal spending apparatus, but are probably not in favor of dismantling many of the government programs they rail against.
"They want it to be better managed, they want to have more input and they want it to be more democratic with a small 'd,'" Fineman said.
Kentucky’s perceived lost cause for Democrats and the paltry eight electoral votes mean Thursday’s vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan will likely be the only visit the campaigns pay during this cycle. Fineman said it will always be hard for state and national politicians to make in-road from afar.
In addition to a fractured media landscape that makes it expensive for candidates to advertise in the many markets that ring the state, Fineman thinks Kentucky campaigns are also shaped by cultural factors. The traditional "courthouse campaign" strategy of statewide candidates appearing at government buildings in a couple counties a day during election season has gone by the wayside most everywhere else, but kissing babies and going door-to-door is considered more of a necessity here than in states dominated by urban centers.
Kentucky is also unique, Fineman said, because people actually derive a sense of identity from their state's borders. He recalled a sign paid for by an RC Cola bottler in Whitesburg, Ky. just across the state line from Tennessee that announced "We're proud to be Kentuckians."
"The state matters more to people in this state than states matter to people in other states," Fineman said, noting how little importance being from Pennsylvania held for he and others in his native Pittsburgh.
"Everyone here is one big crazy family," Fineman said. "That's what I love about it."