Missouri has gift for picking presidents

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- It's been 52 years since Missouri, the nation's most consistent bellwether state, failed to correctly pick the winner of a presidential contest.

Recent polls show the state in a dead heat, even though Democratic presidential nominee Sen. Barack Obama consistently leads in national polls.

The most recent state poll by American Research Group, conducted Oct. 28-30, showed the race in a tie, with Republican candidate Sen. John McCain and Obama each getting 48%.

"The Democrats forget that this country isn't just East and West coasts, and a few big cities in between," said Kevin Smith, 42, who was among thousands in attendance to see Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin speak at a Springfield rally in late October. "There's a whole lot of towns just like Springfield, too."

Since 1904, Missouri has only failed to pick the eventual president once. In 1956, Democrat Adlai Stevenson won the state by less than 1%. Dwight Eisenhower handily won the presidency that year.

Then-Texas governor George W. Bush took Missouri in 2000, beating then-vice president Al Gore 50% to 47% Bush beat Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry by a wider margin in 2004 — 53% to 46%. This year, Springfield and Missouri's rural areas are McCain's best bet if he hopes to win the state's 11 electoral votes, political analysts say.

Democratic strength in the state has long resided in the urban centers of St. Louis and Kansas City, as well as liberal bastions such as Columbia, said George Connor, a professor of political science at Missouri State University in Springfield.

"Missouri is still a conservative state at its heart," Connor said.

Relying on a strategy that earned Democrat Claire McCaskill a U.S. Senate seat in 2006, the Obama campaign has established 27 of its 44 Missouri offices in rural Republican strongholds. McCain has 15 offices statewide, according to Missouri GOP spokeswoman Tina Hervey.

"It's definitely something we borrowed from Claire McCaskill," said Buffy Wicks, director of the Obama campaign in Missouri. "Both Sen. Obama and (Democratic vice presidential nominee) Sen. Biden have been outstate (in the rural outlying areas). We've put the candidates there, which I think is a big indicator." McCaskill's fervent campaigning in rural Missouri allowed her to shave 3% of the vote from incumbent Sen. Jim Talent, Connor said. She defeated Talent by 2.3%, winning 49.6% of votes, according to the Federal Election Commission.

"I find it hard to believe Obama could do as well as McCaskill did in outstate Missouri," Connor said. "There's a percentage of even Democrats who are unlikely to vote for Barack Obama because he's too liberal and because of his race."

There is evidence the Illinois senator could inspire enough turnout in urban areas to offset the Republican advantage elsewhere, Connor said.

He pointed to an Oct. 18 rally under St. Louis' Gateway Arch at which Obama drew an estimated 100,000 spectators.

The Republican ticket has seen high interest as well. An estimated 15,000 attended an Oct. 24 rally with Palin in Springfield, the state's third-largest city.

Many at the rally cited Palin's morals and down-to-earth parlance as reasons for supporting her.

"We're worried about America," said 48-year-old Amber Theobald, a Republican. "We just wish America would stop drinking Obama juice."

David Robertson, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, predicted Obama has a 55% chance of taking Missouri, compared to a 75% chance of winning the election.

"We're usually within 3% or less of the popular vote nationwide," Robertson said. "If that's the case, then I think we go with Obama."

Jared Craighead, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party doesn't think that's the case.

"There's still a bunch of undecided voters out there," Craighead says.

"They're going to see that Sen. McCain and Gov. Palin share their values." He said the Republican Party is traditionally better at turning out voters than Democrats. Craighead says he believes this will deliver Missouri to McCain on Tuesday.

So is this the year Missouri breaks its streak?

"I hope not, but it might be," Craighead said. "It very well could be."

VanderHart reports for the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader.