The splatters of the blues and reds on a map of November’s U.S. presidential election plainly show the political differences between urban and rural geographies. Big blue bursts of dense, Democratic, urban islands contrast sharply against sprawling red seas of suburban and rural Republicans.
The mix of blues and reds in Boone County is no different, with election results showing a particularly strong Republican edge outside of Columbia. However, a few observers see a blending of colors in the works.
In Boone County, George W. Bush fared far better in the lands outside of Columbia where he received 58 percent of the vote compared to Kerry’s 41 percent. Those rural voters gave Bush a greater margin of victory than either Missouri or the nation as a whole. On the flip side, Columbians favored Kerry 54 to 45 percent.
Despite Columbia’s force of numbers — almost twice as many voters as the rest of Boone County — the decisive rural vote for Bush resulted in a near split for Boone County as a whole, with Bush collecting just 158 more votes than Kerry.
“Outer Boone County has always been the anti-Columbia, and that goes back, heck, probably 30 years,” said John Ballard, a local political consultant.
“I don’t think it’s so much a partisan thing as rural conservative versus urban non-conservative,” he said of this year’s election results.
Another election that demonstrates the conservative divide within the county is the state constitutional amendment to block gay marriage that Missourians approved in August.
The amendment fell short in Columbia, with 53 percent voting no and 47 percent voting yes, but won easily in the rest of Boone County, 63 percent to 37 percent. The latter votes were strong enough to push Boone County into the “yes” category for the amendment.
Rick Hardy, MU political science professor, said moral values that led to the constitutional ban on gay marriage had been neglected by a divided Democratic party.
“The Boone County electorate is characterized by two kinds of Democrats: a liberal wing, which includes members of the minority community and university community, and then there are the Democrats in the county around us, in the rural areas, who for years and years have voted Democrat, back since the Civil War,” Hardy said.
In the last 10 years, he said, those neglected values have triggered the more conservative Democrats to swing Republican.
Indeed, for the first time in two decades, Boone County as a whole voted for a Republican president. The last time was in 1984, when residents re-elected Ronald Reagan.
“The more moderate, conservative group outside of Columbia is much more likely to support the right to keep and bear arms, to be pro-life. I think the real sleeper issue was the gay rights amendment that came up in August. More and more of them are splitting their tickets.”
David Leuthold, MU professor emeritus of political science, said those conservative leanings in Boone County reflect a successful campaign by Republicans in rural areas.
“The pattern this year is that Republicans are particularly successful in garnering support in rural areas where ‘gods, guns and booze’ were subjects that resonated in rural areas more than urban areas,” he said. “Boone County is part of that; it used to be Little Dixie.”
Leuthold said that for years, Boone County was a conservative Democratic area. But as the South turned Republican, so had Boone County.
Jim Pauley, who lives in southern Boone County and served 14 years as a Democratic state representative from the 24th District, said, “I’ve never seen as many Republican yard signs as I did before this election. In the past, southern Boone had been Democrat area, but there is a shift towards Republican.”
Pauley attributes the Republican edge in southern Boone County to growth and an influx of more Republicans.
The 24th District, which includes southern parts of Columbia and Boone County, went Republican this year for the first time in 20 years when Republican Ed Robb beat Democrat Travis Ballenger.
Demographics show the election’s divided result is more complex than liberal city versus conservative rural areas. Columbia’s residents still make up the majority, or about 62 percent, of Boone County, according to the 2000 U.S. Census. And Columbia’s votes for U.S. president outnumbered the rest of Boone County almost 2 to 1.
Columbia’s diversifying economy is creating a diverse electorate, Hardy said.
“This area has become a center of economic growth, so as businesses move here, and as people come from rural areas and other areas, they are going to bring their politics with them,” said Hardy, who predicts Columbia will eventually be more of a two-party city.
If Hardy sees Republican infiltration into Columbia, Leuthold sees liberal penetration to outer Boone County. Leuthold said rural areas outside Columbia are less conservative than they were 30 years ago because a diverse population in Columbia has begun moving into rural areas.
In addition, Leuthold sees a diverse Columbia that, with its high percentage of young people, makes the city more susceptible to the mood of the nation.
“Young people have less party identification than adults and are more likely to swing in the direction of the country. In the 1990s, they were for the Democrats — the young swung left. They swing faster than adults. It’s quite reasonable to assume when Reagan was president, we had more Republican strength among young people, and an increase again when Bush was president.”