In Boone County, where rural towns on rolling hills co-exist with Columbia’s trendy coffee shops and strip malls, voting patterns are as diverse as the county itself.
Within Columbia, many residents vote Democratic and are concerned about education and international relations. In smaller towns, such as Ashland and Hartsburg, many residents vote Republican and are concerned with national security and morality.
Like the nation, Boone County is painted red and blue, a sharp divide that resulted in a nearly deadlocked county during the 2000 presidential election when Al Gore won by less than 1 percent over George W. Bush, according to numbers from the Boone County Clerk’s Office.
Gore won many of the precincts in and around downtown Columbia by at least 3 percent while Bush carried many areas in southwest Columbia and southern Boone County by a similar margin. In northern county precincts, the race was often a dead heat.
“Rural residents often do have different concerns than city residents,” Sherry Brown of Hartsburg said. Brown’s hometown, a rustic community nestled between farmland and the Missouri River, has fewer than 200 people.
At her store, Holiday Treasures and Pleasures, Brown said that she knows both Democrats and Republicans in town.
“I’m a Bush person, myself,” Brown said. “I’m not unhappy with what I’ve seen. I’m not being taxed out of my gourd.”
Down the road at the Cycle Depot, George McLain, who also supports the president, was sitting at the bar, drinking a Coke.
“I think Bush is doing the right thing,” said McLain, who lives near Hartsburg. However, he added, “we always seem to be going in the wrong direction morally.”
McLain, a retired state worker, said same-sex marriage, abortion and school prayer are the most important issues to him.
In 2000, Bush carried more than 63 percent of the vote in this precinct. Al Gore and Ralph Nader received about 32 percent and 3 percent of the vote here, respectively.
In downtown Columbia, however, the mood is considerably different. Sitting outside Lakota Coffee Co., Njabulo Ngwenyama, a sophomore biochemistry major at MU, said that Bush’s policies on the environment, the war in Iraq and international relations have been harmful.
“Seriously, I have nothing good to say about him,” Ngwenyama said.
Denise Phillips, a Columbia resident and librarian, agrees.
“I think our foreign policy has been dramatically damaged and needs to be repaired,” Phillips said. Questioning whether Bush is really in charge of his administration, she said, “I don’t think he’s a particularly smart man.”
In 2000, Bush received only 16 percent of the vote in the First Ward, a central-city ward that stretches roughly from Ninth Street to Hickman High School at 1104 N. Providence Road. That’s a bit more of the vote than Ralph Nader, who received about 15 percent here, but only about 3 percent nationwide.
Merle Black, a professor of politics at Emory University in Atlanta has written numerous books on voting patterns in the South and southern Midwest. He said a lot of rural people are involved in politics for religious reasons and are more likely to embrace traditional institutions.
Black expects the divide between urban and rural politics to intensify over time because people choose to live in places where neighbors generally reflect their values. Cities attract people who want government services while rural areas attract those who are more individualistic. City residents, therefore, are more likely to vote for Democrats, who advocate more government services, and rural residents are more likely to vote for Republicans, who advocate fewer services and lower taxes, Black said.
Representatives of both parties, however, predicted that the divide evident in the 2000 election will fade this time around to favor their candidates.
“I think the map is going to be different this time,” said Phyllis Fugit, chairwoman of the Boone County Central Democratic Committee. “I think we’ll have a higher percentage in the out-county.”
Fugit said the war in Iraq and workers’ concerns about jobs and overtime pay will boost Democrats in rural areas.
Republican Party spokesman Rich Chrismer thinks the opposite. “We are confident that President Bush will run well in Boone County and throughout Missouri,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Officials at the Boone County Republican Headquarters would not comment for this article.