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ANALYSIS: The presidential battle within Missouri

Sunday, November 2, 2008 | 6:30 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — The path to presidential victory in Missouri is well-trod.

Democrats win by piling up votes in St. Louis and Kansas City. Republicans win by racking up votes everywhere else, particularly in southwest Missouri.

At least that's the conventional wisdom.

But dig a little deeper, and the race becomes more complex.

For victory, exactly how many votes does Democrat Barack Obama need in the urban core or Republican John McCain need in outstate Missouri? And can either one make a big enough dent in the other's stronghold to eke out a win?

As a starting point, consider the 2004 presidential election.

Republican President George W. Bush won Missouri with 53 percent of the vote compared with Democrat John Kerry's 46 percent — a solid victory by Missouri's swing-state standards.

Kerry won 80 percent of the vote in St. Louis city — a margin of 88,000 votes more than Bush. Kerry also carried 55 percent of the vote in the state's most populous jurisdiction of St. Louis County and 58 percent in its next largest of Jackson County — a combined 103,000 vote margin over Bush.

That looks pretty impressive. But not compared to what Bush did in the rest of the state.

Bush carried the outer St. Louis suburb of St. Charles County with 59 percent, Springfield's home of Greene County by 62 percent, the capital of Cole County by 68 percent, southeast Missouri's Cape Girardeau County by 69 percent and southwest Missouri's Jasper County by 71 percent. Those counties totaled a 105,000 vote margin for Bush, negating Kerry's advantage in St. Louis and Jackson counties.

Many of the rest of Missouri's rural counties put up similar victory margins for Bush, propelling him to a nearly 200,000 vote victory margin out of more than 2.7 million cast.

Sticking with the 2004 election as a base, political scientist Dave Robertson of the University of Missouri-St. Louis gives Republicans the natural edge heading into the 2008 presidential election.

To be competitive in Missouri, Robertson said, Obama must have three things happen.

First, about 5 percent of the Republicans who voted for Bush must stay home in 2008.

Second, about 5 percent of the moderate Republicans and Independents who voted for Bush need to switch to Obama.

Third, Obama needs to convert the energy of the youth and of African-Americans into about a 5 percent increase over the turnout that Kerry received.

If all those things happen — and Robertson believes they can — then Missouri is about evenly split between Obama and McCain, and the election could drag from Tuesday night into Wednesday before a winner is known.

But if any one of those categories exceeds a 5 percent change, "then Obama wins,'' Robertson said.

Part of the uncertainty about Missouri's presidential contest is the number of people who might vote.

Compiling estimates from each of Missouri's 116 local voting jurisdictions, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan has forecast a near-record turnout of 76 percent. That translates to about 3.2 million voters, which would be an astounding increase of almost 500,000 more ballots cast than in the 2004 presidential election.

Where those voters turn out in the greatest numbers could be the first determinant of the victor, said political scientist George Connor of Missouri State University in Springfield.

"Obama has to win the urban and collar suburban areas, and not just win — the turnout has to be really huge,'' in the range of 75 percent to 80 percent in St. Louis and its inner suburbs, Connor said.

That is possible, given that Obama drew an estimated 100,000 people to an October rally under the Gateway Arch, he said.

For McCain to win, he needs to claim close to 60 percent of the vote in southwest Missouri's most populous area of Greene County and accumulate even larger margins of 75 percent to 80 percent in the rural, traditionally Republican parts of the state, Connor said.

If the get-out-the-vote machines of McCain and Obama match each other in their own strongholds, Connor said, then the race will come down to the working class suburbs — cities such as Kirkwood, Arnold and Fenton. Recent automobile plant layoffs have placed a particular emphasis there on economic conditions. Connor calls them the "battleground areas'' within a battleground state.

Presidential tracking polls rank Missouri as the closest state in the nation.

That means Missouri could be in the glare of the spotlight if the national electoral vote is close. If it's not, the presidential winner could be celebrating long before the outcome in Missouri is known.


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