KANSAS CITY — As the presidential campaign drew to a close, it became evident that Republican John McCain needed a last-minute surge.
He didn't get it nationally, but he got it in Missouri.
An exit poll conducted for The Associated Press and television networks offered clues as to why the presidential race in Missouri remained too close to call into Wednesday, a day after the election. McCain had a slight lead with all precincts reporting, but more than 7,000 provisional ballots remained out.
If McCain wins, he can thank the late deciders.
The exit poll showed that about one-tenth of Missourians made up their minds over the final three days, and 53 percent of that group sided with McCain, compared to 41 percent for Democrat Barack Obama. Nationally, the late deciders were about evenly split. That allowed Obama to maintain his lead and win the presidency.
Missouri Republican Party spokeswoman Tina Hervey cited a targeted get-out-the-vote effort over the campaign's final 72 hours, a strategy that she said worked in 2000 and 2004 and worked even better this time.
"The difference (in Missouri) between us and the Obama campaign was they were going to try to touch every single Missourian. We spent the last three days just going after our voters," Hervey said.
"Really, it was just that personal touch, knocking on doors, answering questions."
Both sides pushed hard in Missouri, with frequent visits from Obama and McCain, their running mates and other prominent politicians from both parties. Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin was in Cape Girardeau Thursday and Jefferson City Monday. Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, was in suburban St. Louis on Thursday and in Lee's Summit on Monday. Obama was in Columbia on Thursday and Springfield Saturday.
University of Missouri-St. Louis political scientist Terry Jones thinks the Palin appearances in particular excited conservative Republicans, especially evangelical Christians. Hervey agreed.
"I think the most important thing these visits did was motivate our volunteers," Hervey said. "It reminded them we were still in the game."
Jones and Missouri Democratic Party spokesman Jack Cardetti said the late movement toward McCain wasn't surprising given recent history. Though long considered a bellwether, Missourians favored the Republican, George W. Bush, in 2000 and 2004.
The exit poll showed that 40 percent of Missourians now call themselves Democrats, up from 35 percent four years ago. The number of self-proclaimed Republicans dropped 2 percentage points to 34 percent, and the percentage of independents or others dropped to 26 percent from 29 percent.
But Jones said those figures are misleading because independents here increasingly lean to the GOP.
Cardetti also thinks the lack of early voting in Missouri hurt Obama, citing long lines in areas of St. Louis and Kansas City that are Democratic strongholds.
In many categories, Obama did slightly better nationally than he did in Missouri. He carried 59 percent of the 29-and-under vote in Missouri but 66 percent of that vote nationally. White voters nationally favored McCain by a 55-43 margin — in Missouri, it was 57-42 for McCain. The vote percentage among Missouri whites this time was identical to 2004, when 57 percent of white voters favored Bush over Democrat John Kerry.
The exit poll of 2,739 Missouri voters was conducted for The Associated Press by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International in a random sample of 50 precincts statewide. Results were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, higher for subgroups.