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Columbia Missourian

Presidential candidates recognize Missouri's importance

By Spencer Willems
October 20, 2008 | 7:13 p.m. CDT

Sen. John McCain didn't come to Columbia just for the barbecue.

Monday's visit marks the Republican presidential hopeful's fifth stop in Missouri since June and highlights the electoral and symbolic value, if not reverence, that both presidential campaigns hold for Missouri votes.

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With Election Day only two weeks off, McCain's campaign is accompanied by a sense of urgency in a state nationally renowned as the political bellwether — a state that many pollsters say he is losing.

"I have confidence that there's been a national movement towards Obama," MU political science professor Jay Dow said of recent presidential polling numbers. "In Missouri we have seen about a nine-point swing in favor of Obama. Whether or not those numbers are real and valid, we'll only know once people start voting."

Although Missouri lacks the clout of some Electoral College delegations such as California or Florida, it is appreciated as not just a bellwether but as a state that is a near composite of the American electorate, with a distinct urban and rural voting culture and demographics that are nearly identical to much of the country.

Politically, this has been the case. Missouri voters have elected both a Republican and a Democratic senator, have maintained a balance in the state's congressional districts and — though the General Assembly is controlled by Republicans — voters will offset that in the governor's race if Attorney General Jay Nixon continues his lead in the polls over Republican Rep. Kenny Hulshof.

And of course, Missouri has proven to be politically flexible, voting for all but one of the winning candidates in presidential elections since 1904.

McCain had been consistently leading in polls of both likely and registered Missouri voters through the summer and up until October. In the midst of the March contest between Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, for example, McCain had a 15-point lead here.

The spectacle of the campaigns, however, has had an impact on the Show-Me State's citizenry.

Obama's national poll figures have been steadily rising since the financial crisis erupted earlier in the month, indicating that voters may be turning away from candidates touting free-market economics and dramatic tax cuts.

The full fallout from Wall Street's troubles might not have entirely hit Main Street, but Missouri voters might be leaning further left than they had before. According to an aggregate of poll averages by Real Clear Politics, Missouri is still a "toss-up." Although Obama enjoys a 3-point lead over McCain, that lead is within the margin of error.

Dow said he is not surprised by Obama's newfound momentum in Missouri, Ohio and Florida following the financial turmoil earlier this month.

"Voters respond most to unemployment races and inflation," Dow said. "There's no doubt that difficult economic times do harm to incumbent (parties).

"The economy will matter, and it will benefit Obama," Dow added.

According to a Rasmussen Reports poll on Friday, 38 percent of Missouri voters blame the Bush administration for the current economic climate and 51 percent of voters think Obama’s tax policy, which would shift the tax burden from middle and lower incomes to people earning more than $250,000 a year, is a sound idea.

With only two weeks until Election Day, McCain's visit probably won't convert any Democratic supporters, but it might succeed in rallying his supporters.

"The purpose of this visit is not to change a lot of minds but to energize his people and get them out to the polls," Dow said.