This is a common question following the row over Congressman Todd Akin’s comment about abortion and rape. In a 2004 book, Thomas Frank, the liberal columnist and author, asked a similar question about Missouri’s western neighbour, Kansas, which has lurched far to the right in recent decades (indeed, its current governor Sam Brownback might well be the most extreme right-wing governor in the union). Yet there is little mystery about Kansas: its rightward shift is part of a broader trend in the Great Plains, which now rivals the South for the status as the heart of the GOP.
But Missouri’s rightward shift, which Todd Akin so demonstrated, is perhaps more surprising. Missouri has the makings of a state that could go blue (and has): it boasts two major cities (Kansas City (in Missouri) and St. Louis) and a significant university town (Columbia); its African Americans comprise 11.5% of the population; and, perhaps most relevant of all, it has long been a ‘swing state’, famously voting for the victor in all but one presidential election in modern times. Yet this once-contested territory has become solidly Republican in recent years — last voting for the Democratic presidential candidate in 1996. Indeed, Missouri even went to McCain/Palin in 2008, quite a contrast to the other swing states that Obama swept. And in this election cycle, Romney is safely ahead in polls, even after Akin’s comments. It seems the Democrats have better prospects in Virginia and North Carolina than they do in the home state of Harry Truman.
What’s going on here? Many factors, of course, but demography is the key. Most important is the state’s surprisingly small Latino population (less than 4% of the population, ranking it 40th out of the 50 states). This has deprived the Democrats of a key growth constituency. Furthermore, the urban population, which is disproportionately Democratic, has steadily declined (in the case of St. Louis) and has become increasingly suburban (in St. Louis and Kansas City), where Republicans have picked up votes. One might interpret KC’s new Performing Arts Centre, a worthy imitation of Sydney’s, as evidence of a thriving community of wine and cheese liberals. But an alternative barometer of KC liberalism would by the city’s failed state school system, which recently lost its state accreditation.
Meanwhile, the state’s aging rural areas have become increasingly red. Obama has little prospect of pulling off Bill Clinton’s magic of limiting the damage inflicted in rural counties. Southwestern Missouri is particularly right-wing — a candidate for the spiritual home of Palinism, if there is such a thing. Indeed, one of Akin’s opponents in the state Republican primary, Sarah Steelman, flooded the airwaves with Palin’s endorsement of her candidacy on the grounds that she was a fellow ‘mama grizzly’.
And what of university town Columbia? As in urban KC and St Louis, support for Obama presumably will be strongest here. But the most telling fact may reside on the gridiron. Recently, the university American football team left the old division it shared with colleges in Kansas, Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas to compete against teams from the Deep South. Could this sporting move portend Missouri’s political future, not as a bellwether, but as a bridge between the GOP strongholds of the Great Plains and the Deep South? It looks likely.
Jay Sexton is a Lecturer in American History at Oxford University and Fellow at Corpus Christi College.
This post is a part of our Elections 2012 coverage, a joint project with the Oxford Rothermere American Institute.