Government & Politics

As Missouri politics turn from purple to red, presidential campaigns skip the state

Delegates from Missouri cast their votes for president at the Democratic National Convention with enthusiasm, but the prospects of the state going for Hillary Clinton are remote and the state’s bellwether status has all but disappeared.
Delegates from Missouri cast their votes for president at the Democratic National Convention with enthusiasm, but the prospects of the state going for Hillary Clinton are remote and the state’s bellwether status has all but disappeared. The Associated Press

Once upon a time, Missouri bragged about its long-standing status as the nation’s best presidential bellwether.

We always voted for the winner of presidential races, the story went. We were never wrong.

Or almost never.

The Economist magazine once said Missouri had “an almost mythical reputation in American presidential politics.” Before 2008, Missouri voters had gotten it wrong just once in the previous century, when in 1956 Missouri went for Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower.

Missouri stood tall as a close-to-perfect representation of the entire nation with its nifty blend of eastern, northern, southern and western Americana wrapped in one neat package.

Then came 2008, when Republican John McCain nipped Democrat Barack Obama, and the state’s bellwether reputation soured.

“The state now appears to be at least a few points more Republican than the nation as a whole,” wrote Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball, a political newsletter, last year.

In fact, Missouri hasn’t gone Democratic in a presidential race since Bill Clinton’s in 1996.

What happened? Why the shift on the presidential level when the state continues to elect Democrats, such as Jay Nixon, Claire McCaskill and Chris Koster, to prominent statewide posts?

Here’s one answer: demographics.

Missouri used to largely mirror the rest of the nation in its percentages of minorities and the ages of its citizens. That’s shifted, and it’s hurt Democrats.

Take Hispanics, who have proved to be a reliable Democratic voting bloc. They make up just 4.1 percent of the state’s population, compared to 17.6 percent of the U.S. population, according to 2015 census numbers.

In a state that’s still as competitive as Missouri, a Hispanic population of average size could wind up whipsawing state politics.

Other trends aren’t as dramatic but add to the Democratic woe.

African-Americans are 11.8 percent of the state population, compared to 13.3 percent nationally.

Whites, who heavily supported Republican Mitt Romney over Obama in 2012, make up 83.3 percent of Missouri’s population, compared with 77.1 percent of the U.S. population.

Missouri is also a little older than the rest of the nation, with 15.7 percent of state residents 65 and older, compared to 14.9 percent nationally. Older citizens are viewed as more reliable voters and opted for Romney over Obama in 2012.

“It’s the demographics in Missouri that make it challenging,” said Roy Temple, chair of the Missouri Democratic Party.

“We haven’t changed with the rest of the country,” said John Hancock, chair of the Missouri GOP.

Former Democratic governor Bob Holden said his party would be helped if the state moved past its insular tendencies. Missouri, he said, needs to look beyond its own borders to people and business opportunities around the globe.

The state’s conservative political culture has discouraged the types of investments in education and infrastructure that often attract young people and others who vote Democratic, he said. The state’s bellwether status could return if “we can create the jobs that attract different cultures from around the world,” Holden said.

In recent years, the state appears to have completed a political transformation that saw many rural Missourians who had been die-hard Democrats since the Civil War edge over to the Republican Party. Given the state’s traditional conservative leanings, those Democrats didn’t have far to go.

“It happened faster in Missouri and pretty thoroughly,” said Dave Robertson, a political scientist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

That’s given GOP presidential candidates something of an edge and discouraged Democratic candidates from competing in the state. Obama, for instance, largely walked away from Missouri in 2012 after making enormous efforts to carry it in 2008.

Romney wound up winning Missouri by nearly 10 points.

These days, Temple said, Democratic presidential campaigns tend to focus on fast-growing states with thriving high-tech sectors, such as North Carolina, with its 15 Electoral College votes, and Virginia, with its 13. They are states with growing Democratic bases.

Missouri has 10 electoral votes and a stagnant Democratic base.

At times, the turning away from Missouri has hurt Democrats. Take McCaskill, who has long winced about John Kerry’s decision to abandon Missouri in the fall of 2004 for greener pastures. His decision left McCaskill, now a two-term U.S. senator, without much of the get-out-the-vote operation that a major presidential campaign can deliver.

The result: Republican Matt Blunt defeated her in that year’s race for governor, a contest that McCaskill had been confident of winning.

Robertson said the culture wars of the early part of this century contributed to the rise of the Republican Party in outstate Missouri.

“The fights over gay marriage, guns and other issues really resonated strongly with people in rural areas,” he said.

Republicans, he added, have been very effective at finding ways to appeal to those voters.

Since shortly after the turn of the century, the GOP has enjoyed its unusual dominance in the Missouri General Assembly, boasting veto-proof majorities in recent years that have allowed the legislative branch to run roughshod over Nixon. Also, Republicans control six of the state’s eight congressional seats.

Democrats, though, have demonstrated an uncanny ability to continue winning high offices. The GOP’s penchant for divisive primaries has contributed to the success of Nixon, McCaskill and two-term attorney general Koster.

Another factor favoring Republicans these days: TV advertising. It turns out that Missouri is a highly inefficient TV advertising purchase for presidential campaigns — or any other campaign, for that matter. Buy television in Kansas City and roughly half the households reached are in red state Kansas, which hasn’t gone Democratic for president since Lyndon Johnson in 1964.

Buy it in St. Louis or Cape Girardeau and there’s heavy spillover into Illinois.

“It’s made it less attractive for (Democratic) campaigns to come here,” Hancock said.

All of this suggests that Hillary Clinton most likely won’t compete in Missouri this fall. Two July polls showed Donald Trump holding a 10-point lead.

“I’d be surprised if she showed up,” Hancock said.

Steve Kraske: 816-234-4312, @stevekraske