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Commentary: What killed Missouri's bellwether status?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 7, 2008 - In the 2008 presidential election, Missouri lost its status as a presidential bellwether. If, as expected, the outstanding provisional ballots do not alter the final result, for the first time in over half a century, Missouri's electoral votes went to the loser of the presidential contest.

For the first time ever, a Democrat won the White House without Missouri's support. Barack Obama won 53.2 percent of the two-party vote nationally (excluding third-party candidates); but he won only 49.9 percent of the two-party vote in Missouri. This gap -- 3.3 percent -- is the highest in decades.

In each of the last three presidential elections, Missouri has been trending more and more Republican than the nation as a whole, despite the Democrats' enormous success in building up their vote in the state, and their near-miss in winning Missouri.

What is causing Missouri to lose its bellwether status? There are three suspects: race, a dearth of Latinos, and a very formidable Republican base.

Suspect 1: Race

Obama's race deterred some Democrats from supporting their party's nominee, both in Missouri and across the nation. There's no reason to assume that racism in Missouri is any worse or any better than it is in the nation as a whole.

The problem is that a little racial prejudice can be decisive in an election as close as Missouri's in 2008, decided by two-tenths of 1 percent.

Obama clearly did worse among Missouri's white Democrats than John Kerry, the white Democratic presidential candidate four years ago. The statewide exit polls show that John McCain won 93 percent of white Republican voters, but that Obama won only 84 percent of white Democratic voters. In contrast to Obama, John Kerry, a white Democrat arguably at least as liberal as Barack Obama, won about 89 percent of white Democrats. If Obama had won 89 percent of white Democratic voters, he would have won thousands of votes more than he needed to carry the state.

In a few counties, especially in the Bootheel, McCain did substantially better than George W. Bush, despite the more favorable political climate for Republicans in 2004. In Pemiscot, Dunklin, and New Madrid counties, Bush defeated Kerry by 438 votes in 2004. Four years later, McCain defeated Barack Obama by 1,223 votes, or nearly a quarter of the margin that separates the candidates statewide. The simplest explanation for Obama's underperformance among white Democrats is his race.

Suspect 2: Not enough diversity

Missouri is growing less and less representative of the nation's rapidly changing ethnic makeup. The Hispanic population is growing everywhere, but it constitutes just 3 percent of Missouri's population, ranking it 39th among the states.

The 2008 election shows that the Democratic coalition now is going to depend more and more on states with larger Latino populations, such as Colorado, Nevada, perhaps Arizona in the next election, and Texas a few elections later.

But in the current election, one need only compare Missouri to Indiana to see how Missouri's relatively small Latino population has undercut its status as a political bellwether. Indiana is a conservative state about the size of Missouri, but with 50 percent more Latinos in its population. Indiana last voted for a Democrat in 1964. Obama won it by about 25,000 votes this year. The exit polls indicated that about 4 percent of the voters in Indiana were Hispanic, and that 77 percent of this group voted for the Democrat. These percentages translate into more than 80,000 votes. One can argue that Latinos were decisive in Obama's statewide victory in Indiana, and that if Missouri were a little more representative of the nation on this dimension, Obama would have won Missouri as well.

Suspect 3: The Republican Base

In 2008, the outstanding organization that Republicans put together in Missouri bent but did not break. It served as a firewall for McCain here, albeit too little, too late to win another term for Republicans in the White House.

The Republican model has depended on organizing and turning out crowds of voters in the fastest-growing areas of the state -- the southwest and suburbs farthest from the central cities. Many of these voters are evangelical Christians, who constituted almost two out of five Missouri voters in 2008. Republicans turned out an unprecedented 1.45 million voters in 2004, and despite all the disadvantages of the Republican "brand" this year, very nearly matched that total with 1.44 million votes this year.

Christian County, south of Springfield, is one of the 60 fastest-growing counties in the United States. In both 2004 and 2008, it gave the Republican presidential candidate about a 13,000-vote margin, more than twice as many votes as McCain needed to carry the state in 2008.

In 2012, Democrats will face a decidedly uphill battle in winning Missouri for Obama, should he be the party's nominee. They will face a formidable, organized opposition and will not be able to marshal the ethnic coalition partners that are helping them build an Electoral College majority with other states. Perhaps as important as anything, a fraction of the Democratic electorate is going to remain resistant to an African-American presidential nominee -- even if he is the incumbent president of the United States.

David Robertson is the chairman of the political science department at the University of Missouri at St. Louis. 

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