Can Kerry lose Missouri and win the White House?

A guide to the swing states.
June 4 2004 5:43 PM

Missouri

The Show-Me state always picks right in the presidential campaign. Will 2004 break its streak?

Like all Midwesterners, Missourians believe they reside in the most authentically American of places. I grew up in Kansas, just a few miles across the Missouri state line, and I'm guilty of this Midwestern indulgence—I'm fond of telling my wife, who's lived in New York, Texas, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., that she has yet to reside in the United States. What distinguishes Missourians, though, is that they stake their claim to genuine, right-thinking Americanness on more than mere geographical middlingness or plainness of speech. Show-Me Staters marshal reams of scientific data to back up their assertion of pure red-bloodedness.

Texas brags that it's a "whole other country," but Missouri proudly declares that it is the whole country. Talk to a Missourian about the state's politics for more than a few minutes, and the words "microcosm" or "representativeness" are likely to surface. During a three-day swing through the state last week, I discovered that an inner demographer resides within nearly every politically minded Missourian: The state is a perfect blend of North, South, East, and West, I was told again and again. Missouri was born in compromise in 1820, and it's still that way today. It has the same percentage of African-Americans as the nation as a whole, the same percentage of union workers, the same rural/urban mix, and on down the line. And invariably, the one fact that every Missourian knows surfaced: With the exception of the time it foolishly cast its lot with Adlai Stevenson in 1956, in every presidential election since 1900 Missouri has proudly voted for the winner. The implication is that you might as well call off the balloting in the other 49 states as a cost-saving measure.

Missouri's presidential voting record trumps even that of Ohio, which has voted for the loser twice in the past 26 elections. The world's David Broders—including, in fact, David Broder—descend on the state every four years to pay homage to its predictive power. It is the swingiest of swingers, the oracle from which all political wisdom can be divined. Unlike Lake Wobegon, here everyone is exactly, quintessentially average. The slogan plastered on billboards outside the town of Rolla says it all about the state's self-conception: "The Middle of Everywhere." But as I talked to some of the politicians, lobbyists, and campaign consultants who know the state's politics best, what struck me was the extent to which the King of Swing may be about to hand over its crown.

It's not that Missouri's turning into Wyoming or Mississippi or some other Republican fortress. Both presidential campaigns are still fiercely competing for the state's 11 electoral votes. A St. Louis Post-Dispatch report last month found that Bush, Kerry, and assorted independent groups have already spent nearly $2.25 per voter on local TV ads. Presidential visits are so common that they've almost ceased to be noteworthy: President Bush has dropped by 17 times so far. During my interview with Tom Carlson, the Democratic mayor of redder-than-red Springfield, Mo. (where Dems are "rare as hen's teeth," he said), Carlson reached behind his desk and nonchalantly pulled out a letter from the president, thanking Carlson for appearing with him at some event. In most parts of the country, local politicians proudly frame anything written on Oval Office stationery, but in Missouri they yawn and stash it with the rest in a desk-drawer file folder.

But swingy or not, the state doesn't matter quite as much as it used to. A decade ago it would have been provocative to say that a candidate could win the White House without Missouri, but Al Gore came within 1,000 votes in Florida—or 7,300 votes in New Hampshire—to doing just that. Gore lost Missouri by a pretty good margin by Show-Me standards: 3 percentage points in a year that Democrats won every statewide race but one. As for Kerry, "He can only win Missouri, I think, if Bush, really, really tanks," said Kenneth Warren, a former pollster for Dick Gephardt who now teaches political science at St. Louis University. In other words, if Kerry does manage to win Missouri, he would likely be sweeping the rest of the country too.

That's because Missouri isn't so much a bellwether as it is a weathervane: It doesn't swing the country, the country swings it. Political cool-hunters head to California to learn about the trends that will soon be heading east, but they head to Missouri to confirm that a particular craze has gone mainstream. (The maxim holds true outside of politics as well: If Missouri were a trendsetter, the nation would be dotted with highway billboards hawking walnut bowls and the delights of a relentlessly advertised store called Ozarkland that sells T-shirts, pocket knives, rock candy, and the like.) The truism should be, "As the country goes, so goes Missouri," rather than the other way around.

Politically, the map of Missouri resembles the nation's: The red-blue divide from the county-by-county map of the 2000 election is marked by blue "coasts" around Kansas City and St. Louis, with a giant, mostly red swath in the middle. The areas outside of the state's two major metropolitan areas are known in politics as "outstate," and just as national politicians in America tend to hail from the South and Midwest, successful statewide politicians in Missouri almost always come from outstate, particularly the southwest. Warren, the former Gephardt pollster, says the perception outstate that Kerry, like Gore, is a "city slicker," could be nearly insurmountable.

The hot political speculation of the moment is that Kerry is leaning toward Missouri's own Dick Gephardt as his running mate. That wouldn't help Kerry outstate, either. Part of the problem is policy: Outstate voters tend to be pro-life and pro-gun. But one Democrat I talked to said it's much simpler than that. Gephardt has three strikes against him: He's a congressman who hasn't run statewide, he's perceived as a national Democrat rather than a Missouri Democrat, and worst of all, he's from St. Louis. In the rest of Missouri, St. Louis is perceived as an uppity, eastern enclave—"The Gateway Arch, they claim it's the gateway to the West, but I always thought it was the back door to the East," a Jefferson City lobbyist told me—and its candidates fare poorly in Missouri's statewide races. Jim Talent, a Republican from the St. Louis area, eked out a win over Jean Carnahan in a Senate race two years ago, but otherwise the area's record is abysmal: No Missouri attorney general since 1968, no secretary of state since 1948, no governor since 1940, and no state auditor since 1822.

Kerry is trying to reach out to Missouri's rural voters—he had Rep. Ike Skelton, a conservative Democrat who represents an outstate district, announce his latest trip to the state—but in the parts of the state where Kansas Citians and St. Louisians are perceived as hoity-toity city folk, a Boston liberal doesn't stand much of a chance. Which is why, if Kerry does pick Gephardt as his running mate, it would be yet another blow to the Show-Me State's swing status. Because Gephardt probably wouldn't be picked to put Kerry over the top in Missouri. Instead, he might be chosen to help Kerry win a state that really will make the difference in 2004: Ohio.

Chris Suellentrop is the deputy editor for blogs at Yahoo News and a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine. He has reviewed video games for Slate, Rolling Stone, and NewYorker.com. Follow him on Twitter.