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Commentary: Missouri's bellwether is cracked

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: September 16, 2008 - Presidential general elections make for busy times among Missouri's political scientists. We have a century-long reputation as a bellwether state -- one that has voted for the winning candidate in every election since 1904 except for 1956.

As a consequence, international and national reporters frequently call and sometimes even travel here, seeking to understand and interpret the national mood by examining the Missouri microcosm. The Economist was the most recent visitor. Its Aug. 28 article, headlined "Show Me a Showdown," paid homage to the state as a predictor.

Earlier in August, the University of Missouri-Columbia News Bureau e-mailed a media advisory, proclaiming Missouri "a bellwether state" and giving contact information for four Mizzou political scientists who could tell them how and why.

There's one problem, however. Missouri is no longer a bellwether. Since 2000, it has tilted Republican at the presidential level. The state's weathervane reputation is living on flawed numbers.

In trumpeting its forecasting reputation, Missouri conveniently omits noting that, in 2000, predicting the winner was a sure thing. If Missouri went for George W. Bush, as it did, it had the electoral vote right. If Al Gore had triumphed in Missouri, it would have been correct on the national popular vote. So, Missouri was both right (electoral vote) and wrong (popular vote) in 2000.

In 1956, Missouri was not only off on the winner -- it was way off. Nationally, Dwight Eisenhower received 57.37 percent of the vote. His Missouri share was 49.85 percent, more than 7 points less. Missouri's excuse for this hiccup, then and now, was that Adlai Stevenson, the Democratic candidate, came from neighboring Illinois. That allegedly skewed the numbers toward the former Illinois governor. These apologists fail to note that Eisenhower was a Kansan, also a state that shares a border with Missouri.

The ideal bellwether should not only get the winner right. Its vote shares should also be on the mark. In 2000, Bush's 50.42 percent was 2.55 percentage points above his national performance. In 2004, Bush's 53.30 percent was 2.57 points ahead of his overall share. By comparison, Ohio -- the current best state for bellwether status - was 1.41 points off in 2000 and a scant 0.08 points away in 2004.

Being more than 2 points off center means more than a 4-point spread. That is quite a distance in presidential contests.

What accounts for the Republican improvement in Missouri in recent years? More than anything else, it is the politicization and mobilization of evangelical Christians. Missouri, indeed, mirrors the nation on most demographic dimensions -- black/white and urban/rural being two key ones -- and its geography provides pieces of both northern and southern traditions. But on religion, an increasingly prominent partisan divide, Missouri is atypical: It has many more evangelicals.

According to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, conducted in 2007 among a national sample of 35,556 including a Missouri segment of 879 and released earlier this year, Missouri's religious composition is 37 percent evangelical, well above the national share of 26 percent.

No state has applied the Karl Rove strategy -- appeal to the evangelical base and get out its vote -- more diligently or effectively than has Missouri. Starting earlier this decade when John Hancock was the state's Republican Party executive director and continuing until the present, the GOP has invested significant resources in identifying and organizing evangelical voters.

It has paid off. In 2004, the Republicans were polling so well that, suddenly and without warning local Democrats, the John Kerry campaign shut its doors on Oct. 12 and moved all its staff to more competitive states, most notably Ohio. Forget about bellwether -- Missouri was not even a battleground state.

What about 2008?

On the red Republican/blue Democrat spectrum, color Missouri pink. Three polls (CNN/Time, Rasmussen, Zogby) released between Sept. 7 and 12 all have John McCain ahead by 5 to 7 percent, marks similar to Bush's 7 point margin in 2004. It is hard to see McCain getting to the required 270 electoral votes without winning Missouri, so it is likely that his campaign will stay around.

But it is quite possible to have a Barack Obama victory scenario that does not include Missouri. That's why, come early to mid-October, careful election observers will be watching whether the lights stay on in the Obama offices.

What is a bellwether

bell.weth.er /blwr/-noun

1. a wether or other male sheep that leads the flock, usually bearing a bell.

2. a person or thing that assumes the leadership or forefront, as of a profession or industry: Paris is a bellwether of the fashion industry.

3. a person or thing that shows the existence or direction of a trend; index.

4. a person who leads a mob, mutiny, conspiracy, or the like; ringleader.

[Origin: 1400-50; late ME]

Dictionary.com Unabridged (v 1.1)

Based on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, (c) Random House Inc. 2006.

Terry Jones is a polling expert and professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. 

Terry Jones
Terry Jones is a polling expert and professor at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

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