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October 30, 2008 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Hop on the Straight Talk Express or the Campaign for Change bus, and hang on tight because it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Missourians want the facts, and presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama want Missouri’s 11 electoral votes. Solution? The senators have racked up a combined total of 28 campaign stops, 58 offices, thousands of volunteers and more than $5 million in itemized contributions in an effort to bring their versions of the truth to Missouri voters.
Why? Because Missouri is a bellwether state, mirroring the demographic, economic and political composition of America. “We represent the country better than most other states,” explains Tina Hervey, a St. Louis native and communications director for the Missouri Republican Party. “We have two metropolitan areas and a large rural area. … If you can sell a message here that the people of Missouri can believe and trust, so will the rest of the country.”
That’s been the case for 104 years — Missourians have voted for the elected president in every election since 1904, with the exception of 1956, when Democrat Adlai Stevenson beat Republican Dwight Eisenhower.
Barack Obama has visited Missouri 13 times since January 2008, soon to be 14 after his rally this evening on the MU Mel Carnahan Quad. His appointments included rallies in Kansas City and St. Louis, a speech in Independence, and town hall addresses in Rolla and Springfield. His stops were frequent but did not pull large crowds, leaving some to question the depth of the Missouri Democratic Party. But all records were broken Oct. 18 when Obama anchored the biggest political rally in this election season at the time. The crowd of 100,000 people stretched from the St. Louis Mississippi River bank past the city’s courthouse. From below the Gateway Arch Obama reminded voters that “if you want real change … give me your vote on Nov. 4th. And if you do, I promise you — we will win Missouri, we will win this election, and then you and I together will change this country and change this world.”
Obama’s whopping 43 Missouri campaign offices are helping to spread the message. Campaign for Change Youth Outreach Organizer Araz Pourmorad says: “When we have offices out there, all over the state, and [voters] can come to our offices or our people can go to them … It shows we care.” Pourmorad is often based out of the Columbia office as he works to register young voters at nine universities and two high schools in and around the city. Although both Democrats and Republicans are encouraged to register, the partisan plan might work in Obama’s favor. “Young people between the ages of 18 to 34 are more likely to be Obama supporters than McCain supporters with a ratio of 3:1,”
Pourmorad believes McCain’s Republican policies are old hat and will not appeal to young Missouri voters. “Our opponent, he’s been in the Senate for over 30 years, and now he’s trying to steal the message of change, and
that’s not going to fly with the people that are educated. Anybody who can think critically knows if you can’t bring change in Washington in 30 some years, you’re not going to bring it as president of the United States.”
How the presidential candidates
connect with Missouri
Jeremy Hagen disagrees. An MU law student and chairman of the Missouri College Republicans,
Hagen believes Missouri will go red come Election Day despite McCain’s 15 scattered offices and the fact that the state has Democrats in office now, including current U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and state Sen. Chuck Graham. “Missouri is a right-leaning state, so I think that McCain is predisposed to win,” Hagen predicts, noting that the last time Missouri went blue during a presidential election was in 1996 for Bill Clinton.
But what about those young voters who Pourmorad predicts will vote Democrat? Hervey is quick to point out that young people historically don’t turn out to vote, and even if they do, McCain has “a message that resonates with all ages.” Hagen agrees, adding that “John McCain’s record demonstrates a history of making decisions based on what he thinks is best for the country.”
McCain’s 15 Missouri offices do their best to share this record with voters. Can they compete with Obama’s 43? Hagen says that Obama’s excessive number of campaign centers in obscure places won’t matter if the candidate is not spending a significant amount of time in those areas. Offices themselves won’t bring people to the Democratic Party, especially rural Missourians who might be skeptical of Obama to begin with. “A lot of people in rural
Missouri believe he’s for abortion, that he’s for taking guns, that he’s for higher taxes: strike one, strike two, strike three,” Hagen says. “I don’t think putting an office in an area takes away strike three, strike two or strike one.”
McCain, on the other hand, hasn’t struck out yet. He hit home runs with local business owners while chowing down at Columbia’s Buckingham Smokehouse Bar-B-Q Oct. 21. The under-publicized lunch attracted a crowd of about 150 people, a contrast to McCain’s usual Missouri gatherings of several thousand people. “If you’ve got the right message, you can [consistently] pull an event over 10,000 people,” Hervey says. McCain has produced large crowds in rural areas and also in Missouri’s big cities, bringing significant numbers of Republicans into liberal urban territory, including St. Louis for the vice presidential debate between Republican Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska and Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware. In fact, the self-described “maverick” proudly introduced Palin to 23,000 supporters in O’Fallon only two days after announcing her as his VP pick in August.
McCain’s “Country First” message appeals to those both above and below the liberal I-70 corridor and even a few along it: With four times fewer offices and staff than his rival, the 72-year-old senator maintained a solid 2 to 5 percent lead in Missouri until early October. Since then, polls have showed McCain and Obama dueling back and forth, sometimes by less than one percentage point. RealClearPolitics.com averages a variety of national polls and has listed Obama in the lead since Oct. 13.
Both vice presidential candidates have spent ample time in the state. On Oct. 24, Palin rallied supporters in Springfield before dropping the puck at the Blues hockey game in St. Louis later that evening.
Biden stuck to a more traditional campaign stop when he visited Columbia Sept. 9. The senator held a town hall-style meeting at the Activities and Recreations Center, but he goofed when he asked paraplegic Graham to stand.
What will happen Nov. 4? Political analyst Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball election site (centerforpolitics.org/crystalball) is known for correctly predicting elections, but even he thinks Missouri might be too close to call. Sabato says in an e-mail that Missouri “is several points more Republican than average, which helps McCain, but the financial crisis has given such a lift to Obama that even Missouri might fall. The final vote should be close here — but of course that’s a bad sign for McCain. This should be his state without too much work. Not this year.” If the Crystal Ball can’t see the future, who can?