Swung State

For the first time, Democrats aren’t trying to win Missouri’s electoral votes. Why?

Mitt Romney speaks during a campaign event in St. Louis in June. Missouri voters might not love Romney, but the state is likely to go in the GOP column.

Photo by Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

SPRINGFIELD, Mo.—“The good news,” says Jolie Justus, “is that I really do think we’ve hit bottom.”

We, in this case, are Missouri Democrats. Until 2012, nobody had ever heard of a competitive presidential election that leaves out Missouri. Missouri joined the union in 1821, and for 187 years no Democrat won the presidency without carrying the state. When Democrats lost, they at least kept it close here. Even Michael Dukakis lost Missouri by only 4 points.

Then, in 2008, Barack Obama won the presidency while losing Missouri. It was close! Only 3,903 votes separated Obama from McCain, while Ralph Nader—of course, who the hell else?—snagged 17,813. Then Obama took office, and the Democrats went back into decline. In 2010, Republicans defeated Rep. Ike Skelton for a mostly rural seat that Democrats had held since before Sputnik.

The red wave gave Republicans 28 of 34 state Senate seats. Justus, the first openly gay senator, was one of the few Democrats left, representing urban areas, huddling together for warmth. In 2008, the Obama campaign’s score of rural GOTV offices became a model of the hope and change candidate’s vast appeal. This year, the Obama campaign has two offices in Missouri, in the liberal nodes of Kansas City and St. Louis.

“We’re in new territory,” says Justus. “The fact is that we are getting to be seen as a red state, that we’re more like Kansas.”

Start with the demographics. In the 2000 census, Missouri was 84.9 percent white, 11.2 percent black, 2.1 percent Hispanic, and 1.1 percent Asian. Today those numbers are 80.8 percent, 11.7 percent, 3.7 percent, and 1.7 percent. It’s a slight boost to diversity, and you can see it in the vast southwest and center of the state. Park in Carthage, near the town square, and you’ll walk past a pretty bustling supermercado over to a group of antique shops and zero street traffic.

But compare Missouri to a state that Obama wants to win, like Virginia. There, the population of non-Hispanic whites has fallen from 72.3 percent in 2010 to 64.5 percent today. When you talk to conservatives in rural Missouri, you hear “Kansas City” and “St. Louis” spat out like curses. (“Chicago,” too.) That’s where the crime is, and where their tax money gets wasted. But the urbanites in the state are outnumbered.

So why can’t Obama win the skeptics, the people who voted for Clinton? I meet with Jeff Roe, a Republican strategist with a fearsome win record, in his office in the Kansas City suburbs. He has a postcard view of the skyline, but he is in Clay County, one of those places that Democrats always won until George W. Bush arrived. “Abraham Lincoln got zero votes here,” he says. “Literally, none.”

Roe sits in front of a photo commemorating a meeting with Rush Limbaugh; leaning next to that is Roe’s new AR-15. Why is Obama so uncompetitive in Missouri? “There’s a racial piece of this,” says Roe. “Look at Independence, Missouri. It’s Democrat. Rep. Emmanuel Cleaver represents. It’s the birthplace of Harry Truman. Most of the local elected officials are Democrats. And Obama lost. He’s the first Democrat for president to lose it. And Cleaver loses it. So it’s got to be racial politics. In the boot heel, counties that go reliably, 70 percent Democrat, Obama loses. There’s got to be a racial piece to that.”

There are so many other pieces. Why are local Democrats weaker than they used to be, even if they’re not running with Obama? Some of them point to 2008’s Republican-led campaign finance reform that ended all limits on campaign contributions. The Democrats who win statewide—everybody still expects Gov. Jay Nixon to win—build war chests. But it’s easy for big donors to wipe out Democrats in down-ballot races. And it’s expensive to win those suburban seats, many of which are on the state border. “You’re buying ads in Kansas City and St. Louis, which means half your money is wasted in Kansas and Illinois,” says Democratic strategist Roy Temple. “It’s not that we’ve swung so extreme to the right, it’s just that there’s no offsetting mechanism for it.”

Not until Obama is gone, certainly. Republicans like to refer back to a 2010 ballot initiative, nonbinding, that put Missouri on record against a health care mandate. Seventy-one percent of voters went against the administration—and, to be fair, against the idea that had been drafted originally by the Heritage Foundation. Roe’s recent polling suggests that Obamacare opposition is down, but only to the mid-50 percents, with only 30 percent of Missouri strongly behind the law.

But Missouri had another nonbinding vote, in 2012. In February, the state held a “beauty contest” primary, and Rick Santorum won 55 percent of the vote—every single county. Republicans in the state that once chased out Joseph Smith wanted the Catholic candidate who called Mitt Romney “the worst Republican to run against Obama on health care.”

In Springfield, I meet up with James Owen, an attorney and former film critic running for one of the city’s legislative seats. The rendezvous happens at Leong’s Asian Diner, a local institution run by a Chinese immigrant who stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day and then returned to Missouri to invent cashew fried chicken. (Missouri’s racial diversity comes in drips, not in map-changing population surges.) “I was in a courtroom right after the 2008 election,” says Owen, “and a defendant started joking that ‘they’re gonna start growin’ watermelons in the Rose Garden.’ The judge was like: ‘Uh, excuse me?’”

Owen, like every Democrat I meet, is wistful about the “swing state” days. But he’s not sure about Mitt Romney’s swinging abilities. “During the primary I was telling people: If Santorum pulls this out somehow, I don’t think I can run,” he says. “He would have hyped up the voters down here the way Sarah Palin did.”

Mitt Romney isn’t somebody who hypes up conservative Missouri. He’s somebody it can tolerate. The most common phrase I heard when asking Republicans about Romney here was “he wasn’t my first choice, but …” George W. Bush and John McCain fit the Republican profile. Romney never will. Democrats, Owen and others, hear it all the time: There are conservatives who go to church, hear that Mormonism is a cult, and struggle to square that with the name on their ballot. “It hurts them quietly,” says Temple.

“It comes up in coffee shops,” says Justus. “I heard two people talking about it just the other day. ‘What are you gonna do? You gonna vote for the Muslim, or you gonna vote for the Mormon?’ And this guy, who belonged to one of these megachurches, said that the issue had come up in his prayer meeting, and they’d decided not to vote.”

This may be one of the states where that attitude costs Mitt Romney some votes. But it won’t be enough to let the Democrats win Missouri.