Economy, race might factor into Missouri vote

Saturday, November 1, 2008 | 8:51 p.m. CDT; updated 10:55 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 11, 2009

ST. PETERS — Some white union members in the suburbs northwest of St. Louis are blunt about their racism when Gary Booth knocks on their doors.

"I am not voting for a black man," they tell Booth, who leads organized labor's Democratic campaign effort in nearly all-white St. Charles County.

Others are indirect but make clear that their unease with Barack Obama's race will influence their vote Tuesday. "It's a difficult thing to try to break down those barriers," Booth said.

Whether Obama or Republican rival John McCain carries Missouri depends in no small part on the nearly 250,000 voters of St. Charles County, a fast-growing working-class area. It would be tough for any Democrat to win in this culturally conservative county, where many voters oppose abortion rights and gay marriage. But the troubled economy and Obama's huge campaign operation have put the entire state in play.

The nominee is making two trips to Missouri in the campaign's final week. He has 44 offices in the state, which President Bush won handily in 2004, compared with McCain's 16. As for unpaid volunteers in Missouri, Obama has thousands.

Steven S. Smith, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis, said Obama's campaign was the most elaborate any presidential candidate had ever mounted in Missouri. "The sheer number of campaign volunteers going door-to-door — get-out-the-vote, voter-registration efforts — has been beyond belief," he said.

Obama is also spending three times as much as McCain on television ads in the state.

Missouri's economic distress has also enhanced Obama's prospects. In St. Charles, a county near the convergence of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers with a population of 344,000, rising home foreclosures attest to the tough times. So do the 10,000 new empty lots on the county's exurban frontier: developers leveled them to build houses but cast aside construction plans in the absence of buyers.

Still, race remains a potent force in the White House contest here, even as Obama's top advisers deny it.

"The truly undecided are not undecided because of race," campaign manager David Plouffe said. "They're undecided because they haven't decided who's best on taxes, health care and other issues."

But the effect of race in Missouri is apparent to Tommy Roberts, the Democratic chairman of St. Charles County. Leaning on a desk in the bustling Obama office here, Roberts recently recalled the racist graffiti scrawled on cars out in the parking lot one night.

"If Barack Obama was a white guy, he'd win St. Charles County," said Roberts, adding that he would be "tickled pink" if the Illinois senator gets more than 46 percent.

"People flocked to St. Charles County to get away from the black people in North St. Louis," he said.

Alluding to white families who fled St. Louis for nearby suburbs only to migrate a generation later to St. Charles County as blacks moved farther out of the city, he said: "They're scared to death this North County issue is going to happen all over again."

At a card table, Obama volunteer Kayla Kremer, 63, was placing phone calls to voters. Her home is in Dardenne Prairie, a community 20 miles from St. Louis that is more than 95 percent white. When she calls upon neighbors to support Obama, Kremer said, some "slam the door in my face." Others say, "Absolutely not."

"There is a lot of underlying racism," said Kremer, a pediatric nurse practitioner who has never volunteered for a campaign before. "I think if he loses this area, it's because of that."

But for many whites in St. Charles County, the dismal economy has trumped misgivings about race. On a recent trip to the Mid Rivers Mall in St. Peters, Pat Nagle, 69, said Obama might be a "wild card" but seemed better suited than McCain to lead an economic recovery. "My husband was going to retire at the end of the year," Nagle said, explaining that she and her husband lost a big chunk of their savings in the stock market. "Now he's thinking maybe he won't retire at the end of the year."

McCain and his running mate, Sarah Palin, have campaigned in St. Charles County, one of Missouri's biggest troves of Republican voters. Many, like Delano Sylvester, 75, of Lake St. Louis, rarely, if ever, would vote for a Democrat. Sylvester, a retired Air Force officer who was also at Mid Rivers Mall, said he saw Obama as a liberal who was unqualified for the presidency.

"I wouldn't consider voting for a socialist," he said.

Republican leaders say Obama will be hard-pressed to break through such resistance, no matter how sprawling his organization.

"It's sort of like trying to sell meat to a vegetarian," said Jared Craighead, executive director of the state Republican Party. "It doesn't matter how in-your-face you are."

With strong turnout in Democratic strongholds St. Louis and Kansas City, Obama could carry Missouri without winning St. Charles County. But Democrats "have seen the wisdom of keeping the Republican margin down (in conservative suburbs)," said political scientist Terry Jones of the University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Another Missouri Democrat, Sen. Claire McCaskill, waged a serious campaign in St. Charles County two years ago and lost by a relatively narrow 9 percentage points, but the effort was key to her win statewide.

As for McCain, he is counting on St. Charles County to offset nearly 70,000 newly-registered voters in the city and county of St. Louis, most of them likely Obama supporters. In a sign of their enthusiasm for Obama, 100,000 people showed up at his Oct. 18 rally at the riverfront arch in St. Louis.

The main question in the Missouri election, Smith said, is whether "the fall-off in support for Obama due to race is going to be outweighed by the surge in turnout among African Americans and young people.

‘'I think quite a few people are betting that it will be," he said.

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Fred Moolten November 1, 2008 | 10:17 p.m.

A number of recent commentaries in the news have remarked on the phenomenon of "racists for Obama". It's a phrase laden with cynicism but tinged with hope. In fact, it's only when individuals ponder the consequences of their actions for themselves that ideology can sometimes surrender to a more realistic and fair-minded appraisal of reality. Working families faced with loss of their homes, with unpayable medical bills, or with the threat of that their jobs may disappear will sometimes begin to question long held prejudices when those prejudices put their own future at risk. So it is in the case of racists for Obama.

The hope lies in the ultimate consequences of an Obama presidency if he is elected. At that point, even some deeply prejudiced individuals will have invested their hopes in Barack Obama, and it's the nature of human beings to treasure their investments once made. It's my own hope that the result will be a sea change in the views of at least some individuals currently enmeshed in old prejudices, and there's even more hope for their children who are now coming of age during these astonishing times.

A European visitor to a TV program was recently asked why Europe and the rest of the world was so interested in the American election. He replied, "we are waiting to see if America is what she says she is".

Now, more than two centuries since the Declaration of Independence proclaimed we are all created equal, the rest of us are waiting for that too.

Fred Moolten

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