The Nation's Pulse

McCain’s Missouri Break

Show Me the data!

By 7.1.08

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No question, the GOP brand is mush. President Bush's popularity is in the tank. House Republicans cannot let go of earmarks or the Farm Bill.

The very informative website RealClearPolitics tallied the average of all national presidential polling and revealed a spread of +7.0 in favor of Barack Obama over John McCain.

But Senator McCain can take solace from polling data from the true bellwether state of modern presidential election history. Forget Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. Do not be distracted by Colorado, Virginia or Michigan. Look to Missouri for a true indicator of the presidential contest.

The Missouri data show McCain consistently beating Obama in 9 out of 11 polls from December 12 through June 22. Most recently, the Arizona senator was +7.0 points over Senator Obama in a Survey/USA poll.

Obama beat McCain in a Rasmussen poll of June 3 by +1.0. But McCain wins most of the previous polls, three by double-digits. You have to go back to December 13-15th to find Obama winning one, that one by +3.0.

SO WHAT MAKES the Show Me State so special? It almost always picks the winner in the general presidential election campaign. Since 1904 Missouri consistently went with the winner -- except for 1956, when it tilted for Adlai Stevenson over Ike. Stevenson was from neighboring Illinois.

Cullen Murphy, former managing editor at the Atlantic, described Missouri as "the geographical heart of the continent, a state that straddled North and South during the Civil War and has straddled East and West since the days of Lewis and Clark."

Harry Truman, John Ashcroft, Dick Gregory, Rush Limbaugh, Josephine Baker and Burt Bacharach all claim Missouri as home, notes Murphy. (As do Vincent Price, Tennessee Williams and T.S. Eliot, I might add.) "The population of an 'average' American state...would be about 5.7 million; Missouri's is 5.6 million," claims Murphy.

Murphy comes up with a laundry list of comparisons between the U.S. and Missouri averages for a variety of things, which is very illuminating. For instance, the average percentage of the U.S. population under age 18 is 25.7. For Missouri, it is 25.5. The percentage over 24 years of age with 4 years of college is identical: 26.7 for both the nation and the state, as is the percentage of low-birth-weight babies at 7.6.

Federal aid to state and local government, on a per capita basis, amounts to $1,233 nationally and $1,258 for Missouri.

Murphy goes on and on, but you get the idea.

Missouri is tied with Tennessee in being bordered by eight other states right in the middle of the country.

Kansas City and Springfield are really western cities that look to Denver, Tulsa, and Dallas socially and culturally.

St. Louis, although calling itself the "Gateway to the West," is really the "Backdoor to the East," to use a humorous expression of former Republican State Senator A. Clifford Jones. It really has more in common with Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, or Chicago.

Cape Girardeau, Rush and David Limbaugh's hometown, in the southeast corner of the state, is closer to several Southern state capitals than it is to Jefferson City in central Missouri.

There are substantial African-American populations in St. Louis, Kansas City, and the Bootheel area, which probably contributed to Obama's narrow primary victory against Hillary Clinton.

Moreover, the Catholic vote is very large in the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County and in several counties along the Missouri River with populations with roots in southern Germany. Baptists are huge throughout the state, and there is even a significant contingent of Mormons in Jackson County (Kansas City and Independence), which is a place of great theological significance for them.

WHILE IT IS reasonable to assume that Missouri will continue its streak of choosing the winner, it may be somewhat out of sync with the rest of the nation in terms of the influence, or lack thereof, of Hispanic voters.

According to the state Department of Economic Development, this part of the population has grown by an impressive 92.2 percent between the 1990 census and 2000, much higher than the overall population, which only increased by 9.3 percent. But the absolute number of Hispanics is still small: 61,698 in 1990 to 118,592 versus a total population of 5.6 million.

Compared to Colorado or Fairfax County, Virginia, Hispanic voting power in Missouri is still pretty small. To this extent, Missouri may not reflect the huge demographic changes typical of the rest of the nation.

At the end of the day, political pundits need to demand, "Show Me the data!" Keep an eye on Missouri this election season.

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About the Author

G. Tracy Mehan III served at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the administrations of both Presidents Bush. He is a consultant in Arlington, Virginia, and an adjunct professor at George Mason University School of Law.