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ANALYSIS: Obama, McCain appeal to button wearing, sign carrying crowd as election draws near

Wednesday, October 29, 2008 | 8:34 p.m. CDT; updated 11:47 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, October 29, 2008

COLUMBIA — Days away from the election, a noticeable change has taken place in presidential campaign strategy in Missouri. After months of candidates appealing to the voting-befuddled, hard-to-reach undecided, they're finally giving some love to the sign-carrying, button-wearing, poster-plastering supporter.

Underlying the shift is a simple election fact: None of that button-wearing or sign-carrying means anything if it isn't followed up by punching that ticket. That is, supporters aren't necessarily voters.

George Connor, a political scientist at Missouri State University, said the campaign's choice of stops reflects that the candidates seem to be aiming more for rallying their base instead of appealing to voters across party lines. He said stops appear to be tailored to motivate "intense supporters" to go to the polls. 

Connor points to Sen. Barack Obama's poor showing in rural Missouri counties during the February primary as evidence that there are few votes left for him to gain by visiting more rural areas. In the primary, Obama carried only five counties — four of which are in urban areas.

During the primary, Sen. John McCain did well in the middle part of the state, including the Interstate 70 corridor. Two of his most recent stops were in the suburbs of St. Charles and Belton, both areas he performed well in during the primary. Mike Huckabee and Mitt Romney split the more rural, conservative counties.

Connor said he sees McCain's targeting of rural areas as a step out of his comfort zone. He notes that Gov. Sarah Palin's visits to southwest Missouri are an indication that the McCain campaign is using her to rally the state's conservative base.

Missouri Republican Party spokeswoman Tina Hervey agreed that Palin's stops in rural southern Missouri are aimed at shoring up the base and "assuring them that they have an advocate."

"You've always got to reach out to those who share your values," Hervey said.

But Hervey said she sees McCain's stops along I-70 as not just an attempt to target a base but rather to attract more independent voters.

In Missouri, Obama has outpaced McCain in attracting large crowds in places where his support base is relatively strong. On Oct. 18, Obama spoke to about 100,000 people in St. Louis and 75,000 people in Kansas City — crowd sizes closer to an outdoor rock concert than a political speech.

Obama campaign spokesman Justin Hamilton said large-scale visits are an effective way to attract undecided voters and motivate supporters to get out to the polls.

Hervey said she also sees large-scale rallies — such as Palin's visit to Springfield that drew about 15,000 — as tools to motivate supporters, but she doesn't think crowd size necessarily translates into votes. She chalks up the 100,000 in attendance at Obama's recent function in St. Louis largely as a "curiosity factor."

While noting that Obama has outpaced McCain in attendance at stops, Hervey pointed to a recent poll showing the candidates almost even in the state as evidence that larger rally size doesn't mean more votes.

With the race so close in the state, the Obama campaign is tailoring its outreach efforts to assisting voters in getting to polls, Hamilton said.

"We are going from the persuasive phase — where we are identifying supporters and trying to win over undecideds — to trying to get them out to vote," Hamilton said.

Hamilton said volunteers are now giving out polling place information while pitching the benefits of voting for their candidate.

McCain volunteers are not including polling place information and voter education information in their efforts because McCain appeals to “more established” voters who already know when and where to go, Hervey said.

Obama's strategy could be effective in bringing out new voters, Connor said, because his outreach efforts are more organized than the McCain campaign's.

"There is more Obama outreach in Missouri than we've seen from Democratic candidates in past years," Connor said.


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