In this presidential election cycle, where each state gets a primary spotlight, Missouri stands out because it’s average.
“As Missouri goes, so goes the vote for the national presidency,” said Walter Schroeder, a former MU geography professor who calls the state America’s bellwether. “No other state comes that close to being the nation’s average.”
Schroeder, who for 30 years taught a course on state geography, said Missouri is a likely indicator of national trends because it “is the best state microcosm there is in the United States” — meaning that in terms of income, demographics and economics, Missouri most closely mirrors the country as a whole.
For example, he said, the state now has about the same percentage of blacks in its population as the national average, and the state’s income per capita and per household is also about the national average. Its population is almost exactly 1/50 of the nation’s population, and the state’s size is almost 1/50 of the total area of the nation.
“When you have such a variety in your state,” Schroeder said, “it’s really hard to put it into a region which has its own identity.”
In the past 100 years, the presidential candidate who won the greatest number of votes in Missouri on Election Day went on to the White House, he said. The exception is the 1956 Eisenhower-Stevenson race, when the state tilted toward Adlai Stevenson.
Missouri: A mix of sensibilities
Being average, though, doesn’t mean being boring or singularly Midwestern.
MU political science professor L. Marvin Overby, who lived for years in Oxford, Miss., before moving to Columbia, sees Northern sensibilities here.
“It didn’t look Southern to us — it looked cleaner,” Overby said. “The South doesn’t spend as much on upkeep of public property or infrastructure. You’ll find few cities in the South that have things like the Katy Trail.”
Schroeder said that during his teaching career, the question of Missouri’s regional identity always came up.
“The fact that we keep asking this question — Is Missouri Midwest or is it something else? — proves that there is not a clear-cut answer,” he said.
Even Missouri Gov. Bob Holden walks dual lines of allegiance: He attends both the conference of Southern governors and the conference of Midwestern governors.
“He has a foot in both regions,” Schroeder said.
Missouri’s history, in particular, links the state to the South. Schroeder said that in an encyclopedia of the Midwest to be published by Indiana University Press, Missouri is listed as part of the Midwest. But the book goes on to say the state is in the periphery of the region because of its historically Southern ties.
Before the Civil War, Missouri was a slave state, and though it did not secede from the Union, it was well known for its border war with Kansas in which Missouri tried to force Kansas into becoming a slave state, Schroeder said.
“They say that kind of experience isn’t really what the heart of the Midwest means today,” he said.
Overby noted that sociologist Herbert Blumer was run out of Columbia for advocating the view that blacks and whites are equal.
“That part of the Southern past is pretty well gone,” he said. “We aren’t really the Southern state we were in the past, so it’s a historical legacy.”
Geography mirrors cultural blend
Missouri’s physical geography divides the state just as dramatically. MU geography professor Larry Brown recognizes several distinct ecological regions in Missouri, each related to separate national regions.
“The Ozark highlands are really an anomaly because all the way around the Ozarks are plains,” Brown said. He identifies this area as interior highlands most similar to the southern Appalachian region. He assigns Missouri’s north and west to the interior plains and the state’s boot heel to the Gulf-Atlantic coastal plains.
“Everything from the Missouri (River) south is Southern, but in the north it’s more agrarian, more Upper Midwest,” Brown said.
He said one of the ways in which a region is geographically determined is by asking people where they live — it’s called vernacular region, what people call themselves.
But his foolproof plan for identifying the South in Missouri is grits — that mushy hominy some folks find delicious and others won’t touch.
“When you start getting grits on your plate whether you like it or not, you know you’re in the South,” he said.