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Originally published Thursday, November 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Missouri: How a bellwether backed the loser

Based on percentage, the vote difference between McCain and Obama on Tuesday night in Missouri was the narrowest since World War II. The state hasn't been called in McCain's favor yet, but this apparently marked the first time since 1821 that a Democrat was elected president without winning Missouri.

The Kansas City Star

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Ask not how the bellwether Missouri totaled its votes.

The state has blown — oh, so narrowly — its much vaunted presidential picking reputation.

Unofficial results Wednesday showed John McCain with a 5,868-vote margin in the state — a lead that could narrow as final results are tallied and some 7,000 provisional ballots are examined.

Few observers, though, think the outcome will change. Expect Missouri's 11 electoral votes go to the Republican amid a national landslide for Barack Obama.

But new history has been written.

Based on percentage, the vote difference between McCain and Obama on Tuesday night was the narrowest since World War II. The election marked the first time since 1821 that a Democrat was elected president without winning Missouri.

Overall, it was also the first time since 1956, and only the second time since 1900, that the state backed a presidential loser.

"Missouri has lost its status as a bellwether," said Kevin Smith, a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns in the 1970s, '80s, and '90s. "It has established itself as a red state when it comes to national politics."

Obama had said that he hoped to duplicate Claire McCaskill's strategy in winning the state's U.S. Senate race in 2006, when she focused heavily on rural counties. The hope wasn't to win those counties, only to cut her losses enough so that the state's two big cities could carry her to victory.

Although Obama visited Springfield twice, and appeared in communities along Interstate 44 in a late-July foray, he never devoted the sustained attention to rural Missouri that some thought was required to win the state.

"If Obama was trying to mirror the Claire McCaskill strategy, it was a failure, because he did significantly worse in outstate Missouri than Claire McCaskill did," said George Connor, a Missouri State University political scientist.

Two years ago, McCaskill carried 22 counties outside of St. Louis and St. Louis County as well as Jackson County. Although Obama opened field offices in rural Missouri and sent paid workers to staff them, he wound up winning just six of those counties.

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Obama had counted on that large paid staff and busloads of volunteers to get out the vote for him. More people voted for president in Missouri and Kansas than ever before, but it wasn't enough for Obama.

State officials long have bragged of Missouri's unique status. Former Secretary of State Bekki Cook once issued a brochure titled "Show Me the President: Missouri's Winning Tradition." The last slip was a half-century ago, when the state barely tipped to Adlai Stevenson from neighboring Illinois over Dwight Eisenhower from neighboring Kansas.

Now, by backing McCain, Missouri joins twice-losing New Mexico as a tainted bellwether (although that state didn't have its first presidential election until 1912).

Missouri increasingly appears GOP red in other ways.

Five of the state's nine members of the U.S. House are Republicans. The state House and state Senate both have Republican majorities, and the Missouri Senate grew by three Republicans Tuesday night, the biggest jump in the country for a Republican-controlled chamber.

In 2004, George W. Bush carried Missouri by 7.2 percentage points, better than his national margin of 2.5.

Twenty-four years earlier, Ronald Reagan's Missouri margin over Jimmy Carter was nearly 3 points below his national victory number.

McCaskill, a Democrat, said Missourians shouldn't read much into the state's change in status.

"Bellwether is a kissin' cousin to an independent streak," she said. "And I think we've held onto that just fine."

Case in point: Obama lost the state narrowly, but fellow Democrat Jay Nixon ran away with the governor's race by 18 points.

"Missourians in typical fashion are perfectly willing to split their ticket and perfectly willing to send split messages," McCaskill said.

A CNN exit poll tells some of the tale. Nationally, 49 percent of male voters and 56 percent of female voters backed Obama. In Missouri, the male-female split was 48-50, suggesting that Obama fell short among women here.

Nationally, 66 percent of voters ages 18 to 29 supported Obama, but just 59 percent in that category did in Missouri.

Tuesday's national turnout compares to the record turnout in 2004.

As of late Wednesday, just more than 121 million votes had been counted in the race for president. In 2004, there were 122.3 million voters.

This year's number may grow as returns from California and Oregon are added. Still, experts' predictions that this year's turnout would far surpass that of 2004 may have been too optimistic.

The main culprit: While Obama's total vote exceeded that of George Bush's four years ago by more than a million ballots, McCain's total votes ended up far short of John Kerry's losing effort in 2004.

In other words, Republican turnout dipped substantially.

"I always said there was going to be a downturn in the Republican turnout," said Curtis Gans, a nationally known voting expert.

"There was discouragement about an election it didn't look like they could win ... and right-wing Republicans didn't see McCain as one of their own."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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