Assessing Obama’s Odds in the Show Me State

Sarah Kliff has been following Joe Biden on his current swing through the Midwest. Here's her dispatch from Missouri:

(AP Photo / Charlie Niebergall)

ST. LOUIS, Mo.--When it comes to presidential elections, Missouri knows winners. Since 1904, the Show Me State has voted for the eventual president in every contest except 1956. With such a strong track record, it’s not a state you take lightly--as the candidates know all too well. Yesterday, John McCain and Sarah Palin swung through the state, and Joe Biden followed today with appearances at the University of Missouri in Columbia and a suburban high school in St. Louis. Missourians are pretty clued in to their special status, too. “Missouri is a battleground,” Representative Russ Carnahan told Biden's crowd in St. Louis. “We are going to work here like it determines the presidential election, because it does.”

Can the Democrats flip Missouri this year? The state has gone Republican in the last two elections, but Democrats say Obama is more invested in winning this state than McCain. As many of the 700 crowd members in Columbia happily point out, he's opened 40 offices in Missouri (McCain, by his website’s count, has eight). And the state’s Democrats have been leaning toward Obama since the primary season. In January, he won the endorsement of Sen. Claire McCaskill (who's since become one of his most vocal woman surrogates) and, about a month later, he scored a Super Tuesday victory. It was a narrow one, but impressive in a state that boasts many of the demographics associated with former Democratic nominee Hilary Clinton—farmers, veterans and blue-collar union members suffering from job loss and factory shutdowns.

Obama’s been campaigning hard in Missouri since he won the nomination, and not just in the state’s liberal enclaves. One of his first general-election stops, in facts, was in Cape Girardeau, hometown of conservative shock jock Rush Limbaugh. Predictably, supporters at Biden's two Missouri events today said things are looking pretty rosy. “It’s the first time I can honestly say I’ve seen people not involved in politics become excited,” says Andrea Boyles, 35, a Ph.D student at Kansas State University who saw Biden speak in Columbia. “This campaign is a breath of fresh air.”

But viewing the state through the Biden campaign bubble is bound to skew your perspective. In truth, the numbers from the last few elections aren’t particularly friendly to Democrats. During the last election cycle, I saw presidential nominee John Kerry speak in St. Louis and promise Missourians that “this is the Show Me state and we’re going to show George Bush the door.” It didn't quite work out that way. On Election Day 2004, Kerry lost the state by 7.2 percent, more than double Al Gore's margin of defeat in 2000. Experts note that Missouri has shifted rightward over the last two election cycles, and it's unclear whether Obama is the candidate to reverse the slide. As NEWSWEEK contributor Karl Rove pointed out in his recent swing-state map, “Obama performed poorly with culturally conservative voters in the St. Louis metro area and rural outstate” in the state's Super Tuesday primary, and the most recent polls show Obama trailing McCain by about seven points in Missouri — a dispirting deficit in a state that almost always picks the winner.

How can Obama close the gap? Local campaign staffers say the key is proving that his grassroots organizing strategy can work in areas Democrats lost in 2004. Of course, Obama is depending on the urban turnout in St. Louis county and Kansas City but, even combined, they only account for about a quarter of Missouri’s 5.8 million residents. So local Democratic officials are thinking the clincher might be a series of small, rural counties where every additional door knock can make a difference. Take Boone County, for example. It’s home to Columbia, your typically left-leaning college town, so it should be blue. But Kerry lost there by 158 votes in 2004. “This is the type of area that Obama has to win if he’s going to win the election,” says Jack Cardetti, Missouri Democratic Party communications director. He thinks Obama’s grassroots organization in Missouri is strong enough to go the distance. “It’s a completely different organization that what we've seen before [from Kerry and Gore]," he says. "I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s actually bottom-up and it’s working.”

The strategy depends on recruiting new supporters like Jo Huddleston, a 49-year-old mom from Jefferson City--and not just die-hard Dems. Huddleston showed up to the Biden event in Columbia wearing a “Barack the Vote” tee shirt. “I haven’t worn a political tee shirt since the 1970s, when I was in college,” she says. “I was involved with my family, with being a mom, but this campaign made me realize I had to get involved with something bigger.” She's never talked to her friends about politics until this election, but now she urges everyone to vote for Obama--even when she bumps into them at the grocery store. Huddleston testifies that an increasing number of friends have realized that their individual votes actually matter, and she attributes the change both to the close race in Boone County last cycle and the Obama campaign’s success at grassroots outreach. To take her stretch of Missouri, she says, Obama has "to get folks to the polls and go after folks who are not normally engaged." Up in Chicago, the Obama campaign is praying that either its grassroots strategy works wonders--or that this year is more like 1956 than 2004. Or 2000. Or 1996. Or any of the rest of them.