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September 6, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Missouri’s geographic location is distinct. It has been called the southernmost northern state and the northernmost southern state. Missouri is neither politically blue nor red. Rural areas blanket the state while urban areas such as St. Louis and Kansas City provide industry and dense populations. This demographic variety has led to Missouri becoming a bellwether for presidential elections.
The term “bellwether” refers to the sheep that wears a bell around its neck and leads the herd to its destination. When it comes to political trends nationwide, the Show-Me State has led the rest of the country by voting for the eventual presidential winner in all but two elections since 1904. Candidates pay attention to Missouri because of its track record. Only in 1956 and 2008 did Missouri not vote for the eventual commander in chief.
Homer Page, chairman of the Boone County Democratic Party Central Committee, attributes Missouri’s successful White House predictions to the state’s diversity, which is representative of the national demographic.
In 2008, John McCain won in Missouri by a razor-thin margin, just more than a one-tenth of a percent. This year, Mitt Romney is leading in early Missouri polls despite President Barack Obama holding the edge nationally. Obama also has the power of the incumbency; only three incumbents have not been reelected since 1916. In March 2009, Adam Allington, a reporter for St. Louis Public Radio, wrote in St. Louis Magazine that “Missouri has been losing its bellwether mojo for some time.” If 2012 reveals another missed prediction, Missouri might fall off the bellwether pedestal forever.
The recent GOP surge is due in part to increasingly religious and ideological rural areas voting at higher rates than urban areas, which have predominantly voted Democrat in past elections, Page says. Craig Arnzen, chair of the Missouri Federation of College Republicans, says the lack of “undecided” feedback on recent polls shows strong political division between the Republican and Democratic parties. With the Republican Party gaining strength in the state, both Arnzen and Page say bipartisan politics might be difficult.
Voters are electing more Republicans into local offices, such as state representative and county courthouse positions, Arnzen says. Those positions tend to be the undercurrent for how the state votes for higher offices.
Page says that despite denial from right-wing conservatives, race has factored into the recent elections. It has also played a role in Missouri’s history of representing the country as a whole. During the Civil War, Missouri remained part of the Union but allowed slaves, and this lingers in Missouri’s social stance on race. President Obama’s ethnicity brought opposition, anger and hostility from some Missouri voters that went beyond his politics, Page says, and this played a part in the 2008 election. If two white politicians are nominated in 2016, the state might regain its bellwether position.