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Commentary: Why Missouri Is A Must-Win State

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Democratic candidate for president must win Missouri to win the presidency. To stop the Democrats from winning the presidency, the Republican Party must win Missouri's electoral votes for the third presidential election in a row.

The numbers are simple and stark. No Democratic presidential candidate has won the Electoral College without winning Missouri since the state joined the Union in 1821. While Ohio’s reputation as the key state for a Republican victory is well known, Missouri’s record as a key state for the Democrats is not.

Many political analysts rightly would insist that Missouri is not mathematically indispensable for an Electoral College victory. Missouri can give a candidate only 11 of the 270 electoral votes required to win the presidency. Any number of combinations of states could make up the loss of Missouri.  To win the presidency in 2008, Democrats need only hold on to the 252 electoral votes that John Kerry won in 200 and then flip the 20 electoral votes Ohio gave to George W. Bush — or Florida’s 27, or the 19 votes of three Western swing states (Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico).

These calculations ignore the deeper, crucial truth: The voters who could swing to the Democratic candidate in these other states are the kinds of voters who swing elections in Missouri. In American politics, especially for the Democratic Party, Missouri’s voters are the canary in the coal mine or the indicator species of environmental change. Missouri voters provide a representative mix of the nation’s political instincts. Some Missouri voters share the views of Southerners who are cultural and defense conservatives. Some are Western populist libertarians. A smaller number are as liberal as voters in Boston or San Francisco. About half of Missouri’s voters are suburbanites who in 2008 will weigh the risks of economic recession and war against the risks of higher taxes, crime and cultural disruption (however they define it).

Missouri is and always has been a bellwether for the Democratic Party. It was born a Western state straddling the North and South. When Andrew Jackson helped create the modern Democratic Party, Missouri helped elect Jackson and his successors; the state even voted for the middle-of-the road Stephen Douglas in 1860, when Democratic ruptures could no longer be repaired. It helped elect New York’s Grover Cleveland when the Democratic coalition depended on New York City, the South and parts of the West. It voted for William Jennings Bryan in the party’s populist era, Woodrow Wilson in the party’s progressive reform era, and Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman in the New Deal era. It voted for the hawkish liberal John Kennedy while it supported its own hawkish liberal, Stuart Symington.

The strains of cultural change in the 1960s and 1970s tore at the Democratic coalition in Missouri just as they did across the nation.  Ronald Reagan’s Republican Party reshaped Missouri’s politics the way it reshaped American politics as a whole. By the 2000s, Missouri’s electoral map was a microcosm of the nation: Cities voted Democratic, most rural areas voted Republican. Inner suburbs grew Democratic, and growing exurban suburbs beefed up the Republican vote. The result has been a standoff between a handful of populous “blue” (Democratic) counties and vast expanse of “red” (Republican) counties, with narrow vote margins separating the parties’ candidates in most of the statewide gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections of the 2000s.

Mirroring the nation

Between 1960 and 2004, Democrats received 47.32 percent of the national two-party vote. In Missouri, they received 46.98 percent.

During the same years, Republicans carried 52.68 percent of the national vote and 53.02 percent in Missouri.

No wonder Missouri has voted for the winning presidential candidate in every election since 1960 and in 26 of the last 27 presidential elections. Over the last half century, the division of Missouri’s popular vote for the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates differs from the national popular vote by only three-tenths of 1 percent. If you add up all the votes that the two major party presidential candidates have received nationally in the last dozen presidential elections, Republican candidates from Nixon in 1960 through Bush in 2004 received almost 531 million votes and Democrats almost 477 million -- that is, the Republicans have received 52.68 percent of the national two-party vote, and the Democrats, 47.32 percent. In these same elections, Republican presidential candidates have won 53.02 percent of Missouri’s vote, and Democrats have won 46.98 percent. Looking at each presidential election separately, Missouri’s popular vote has been within the national two-party total by about 2 percent or less of the national vote in all but one of these elections (it deviated by 2.7 percent in 1964).

So Missouri is a must-win in the presidential election for both the Democrats and the Republicans. Winning Missouri is the surest indicator of winning the head, heart and soul of the American electorate. John McCain must find a way to re-energize the majority of Missouri voters who cast Republican votes in 2000 and 2004. The Democratic candidate needs to convince a majority of Missouri voters to change the direction of American politics — and especially to assure a sufficient number of suburban swing voters that he or she offer a safe alternative. Whoever succeeds in Missouri is virtually certain to take office as the 44th president of the United States.

Missouri's Role

  • Missouri has voted for the winner in every presidential election since 1960.
  • No Democrat has won the presidential election without winning Missouri.
  • Missouri's major-party vote split has been within about 2% of the national total in every election but one from 1960 to 2004.

Dave Robertson is a professor of political science at the University of Missouri - St. Louis.

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