Presidential race in Missouri may boil down to one county

Kansas City StarAugust 10, 2008 

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — Maybe, this presidential election year, Missouri isn't red or blue.

Maybe it's Greene.

Greene County — mostly Springfield and surrounding communities, population 263,980, gateway to Branson and the southern Ozarks — may seem an unlikely battlefield for Missouri’s 11 presidential electoral votes.

But Missouri has picked the winner of every election since 1904 — except for a slip-up in 1956.

And Democrats who want to win Missouri, recent history shows, must get close to their Republican opponents here — say, within 10 points — or lose.

Why?

Kansas City and St. Louis are assumed to be firmly in the Democrats’ column. Rural areas vote overwhelmingly Republican. Greene County — growing, increasingly urban, but still conservative — may be the best place for Barack Obama and John McCain to plant their battle flags in the ground.

"The one constant in Republican victories in fall elections has been large margins in Springfield and those surrounding counties,' said longtime Republican consultant John Hancock.

"It's big. Very big," said U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat.

"If you don't campaign hard in a region of the state that is growing, that represents a lot of votes."

McCaskill knows about those votes: She often claims that results in Greene County led to her 2006 victory over incumbent Jim Talent.

She didn't win here — she got about 43 percent — but that was close enough to overtake Talent statewide.

Democrats who get that close almost always win the state: Bill Clinton lost Greene County by 5 percent in 1992 and 9 percent in 1996 but carried Missouri both times.

Al Gore? A 17-point Greene County loser to George W. Bush. John Kerry? He won just 37 percent of the Greene County vote, 25 points behind Bush, who took the state twice.

Since 1964, Republican presidential candidates who have won Greene County by 10 points or more have won the state. Anything less, and the Democrat wins.

"A good-performing Republican will get 65 percent of the vote (in Greene and surrounding counties)," said Jeff Roe, a Republican consultant.

Obama — who campaigned here recently — will try to hold McCain to 55 percent in and around Greene County. Do that, his supporters argue, and he'll win the state.

"This race will be fought and won in the margins," said Buffy Wicks, Obama's Missouri director.

McCaskill's take: "If you’re a Democrat and can't get north of 40 (percent) in Greene County, you’re in trouble."

Republicans say Obama will end up far south of that line.

"A lot of things he’' said have really turned off and angered a lot of people, including (Greene County) Democrats," said Eric Burlison, a candidate for the state legislature and a McCain supporter.

Obama's statements about lower-income voters "clinging to guns" is a major problem, he said.

John Wittmer, a high school English teacher from Springfield: "The threat of Obama is enough to get the hard-core conservatives out."

Greene County is conservative: By some estimates, two out of every three voters here are Republican.

And some of the area's Democrats agree that Obama's liberal image is a hurdle.

"You’ve got be conservative," said Mike Schilling, a former Democratic state legislator and Springfield mayoral candidate. "You can't rock boats and be skeptical" and expect to leave this battlefield as the winner.

A close vote in the area tends to be good news for Democrats, who usually win Missouri under those circumstances. Barack Obama supporters made phone calls there last week. History shows that Republicans who win large margins in the Springfield area are likely to win Missouri. Last week, a crowd of youths backing John McCain gathered for a rally there.

Other Democrats think the sour economy, an unpopular war and hard work can cut into McCain's Greene County advantage.

"(Obama) needs to talk to the economy," said Ed Janosik, an Obama supporter. "This area is hurting."

Schilling agrees: "It's the worst I've ever seen it in my lifetime, and I'm 64 years old."

And, Democrats point out, McCain has some problems of his own: Mike Huckabee, a social conservative, won the county in the state's February primary.

Some of those conservatives still deeply distrust McCain, both parties say. That could keep his turnout low and margins lower.

"You've got to have some evangelical in there," Roe said.

George Connor, a political scientist at Missouri State University in Springfield, said that if McCain "gets too far away, he'll lose Bible Belt conservatives."

"Just ignoring them, which is what he seems to be doing, could make matters worse," he said.

Ignoring Greene County seems unlikely. McCain has campaigned here, too, and is expected to return; television advertising, which is relatively cheap and efficient in Springfield, is already running.

Both campaigns refused to disclose the number of paid staffers on the ground here, but both said they plan major efforts. McCain's campaign has opened offices in Springfield and Joplin; Obama claims five offices in southwest Missouri.

And people are paying attention.

"It's a very intelligent voter base," Burlison said. "You can reach a lot of voters with very limited media buys."

Roe, and some other Republicans, say Obama may hurt himself by campaigning in Greene County.

"You really can't fight Obama if he's not there," Roe said. "Don’t make them hate you there."

Nonsense, McCaskill said: "It’s just the opposite. You can't get votes from people if you don't demonstrate to them that you care enough to show up.”

Strategists from both parties said the campaign in the state is still unfolding. Obama could under-perform in Kansas City and St. Louis, making victory very difficult; or McCain could slump in farm country (his opposition to the farm bill and ethanol subsidies won't help.)

But southwest Missouri should prepare itself, both sides said, for an intense appeal for votes between now and November. The state — and perhaps the election — may be at stake.

It isn't easy being Greene

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