How Missouri previewed Democrats’ Midwestern slump

How Missouri previewed Democrats’ Midwestern slump
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For more than a century, Missouri was a bellwether state in the presidential election, backing the winning candidate in every contest but one between 1900 and 2004.

That changed in 2008, when Republican candidate John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump knocks CNN for 'completely false' report Gaetz was denied meeting The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Tax March - Biden, lawmakers start down a road with infrastructure Sylvester Stallone reportedly joins Trump's Mar-a-Lago MORE defeated Democrat Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaAmerica needs an Operation Warp Speed for cancer Why does Bernie Sanders want to quash Elon Musk's dreams? Obama on Daunte Wright: We need to reimagine policing MORE in Missouri by less then 4,000 votes, even as he was soundly defeated across the country.

For Democrats, it was an ominous sign of troubling trends to come, overshadowed by Obama's rout.


The Show Me State is now solidly in the Republican column on the electoral college scoreboard. And Republicans hope to leverage their gains in 2018, when Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillThe Hill's Morning Report - Biden tasks Harris on border; news conference today Missouri Senate candidate Eric Greitens tangles with Hugh Hewitt in testy interview The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the National Shooting Sports Foundation - CDC news on gatherings a step toward normality MORE (D), one of the most vulnerable Democrats in the Senate, faces re-election.

More than that, the same demographic changes turning Missouri from purple to red are taking place throughout the Midwest, and could cost Democrats going forward.

“Missouri was the canary in the coal mine for Democrats,” said Tom Bonier, a Democratic data analytics expert. “Missouri 20 years ago was a swing state. All the sudden it just fell off the table, and it was white working class voters just flocking away from the party.”

This is the eighteenth story in The Hill’s Changing America series, in which we investigate the demographic and economic trends shaping the face of American politics today. No state represents the exodus of once-reliably Democratic voters better than Missouri.

For years, Missouri represented the nation in miniature. Its politics played out on the tug and pull between St. Louis, a culturally eastern city, and Kansas City, a culturally western city. The north is a rural breadbasket, and the south is a socially conservative Bible Belt.

“Missouri used to be a really good microcosm of America,” said John Hancock, a Republican strategist and former chairman of the state GOP. “It was a very good snapshot of the country.”


Razor-thin presidential elections were decided in the suburban counties that ring St. Louis and Kansas City. Democrats ran up their vote totals in the cities, offset by big Republican margins in rural areas and in the southwest, around Springfield and Joplin.

At the same time, those rural voters long backed conservative Democrats like the late Ike Skelton, a hawk who frequently bucked his national party.

But as the nation has changed, Missouri has stayed much the same. The state has become older and whiter, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, and the influx of Hispanic Americans that changes the political calculus in other states has not materialized here; just 4 percent of Missourians are Hispanic, far below the national average.

“We don’t have an immigrant population here, a Hispanic population that looks anything like what it does across the country,” Hancock said.

White voters, especially those without a college degree, now play a more influential role in Missouri than they do in most other states. As partisan polarization has driven those voters to the Republican Party, Missouri Democrats have suffered.

“The story of Missouri as a swing state is a state being left behind by the politics of earlier times,” said Dave Robertson, who chairs the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “The white population of Missouri has remained closer to the kind of 1950s demographic strength than has been true in other states.”

Nowhere is that shift more evident than in Missouri’s rural counties. In 1996, Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonA leadership menagerie of metaphorical scapegoats How Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 Biden is thinking about building that wall — and that's a good thing MORE won 62 of Missouri’s 114 counties, along with the independent city of St. Louis. Four years later, Al GoreAlbert (Al) Arnold GoreHow Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 The information superhighway must be accessible and affordable for all American Rescue Plan: Ending child poverty — let's make it permanent MORE won 13 counties and St. Louis. Obama won eight counties in 2008, and three in 2012, the same number Clinton won four years later.

Skelton was a victim too: He lost his seat in 2010, despite having voted against the Affordable Care Act.

In other states, Republican gains in rural areas have been offset by Democratic gains in cities, where minority voters and Millennials have boomed as shares of the population. But in Missouri, Republican gains in rural areas far outstrip Democratic advantages in big cities.

George W. Bush won only three Missouri counties with more than 70 percent of the vote in 2000; in 2016, 97 counties gave President Trump 70 percent or more. Between 2000 and 2016, all but two of Missouri’s counties trended towards Republicans.

Skelton’s successor, Rep. Vicky Hartzler (R), has won re-election three times with more than 60 percent of the vote. Across the state, Republicans now control both chambers of the state legislature and all but one statewide office.

Missouri shows signs of an emerging political divide, too, one between those with college educations and those who did not receive a college degree. Among the 50 Missouri counties that shifted 20 or more points toward Republicans between 2012 and 2016, just 14 percent of residents hold a college degree. In the three counties that became more Democratic, more than 31 percent of residents hold a degree.

Democratic struggles among the white working class in Missouri presaged the party’s problems elsewhere in the Midwest. Trump crushed Clinton in the nine Missouri counties that border Iowa, by a nearly four-to-one margin. Iowa voted for Trump by almost ten points. Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin, states that look demographically similar to Missouri, also went for Trump.

“White working class voters in Ohio were performing like white working class voters in Missouri, who long since abandoned the party,” Bonier said.

At a time when Democrats searching for a path back to power say they must begin showing up in rural America, the vulnerable McCaskill stands out as a model. McCaskill’s office makes a concerted effort to put her in rural and conservative settings, even if she gets booed. 

McCaskill made nearly 100 trips to Greene County, in Springfield, ahead of her re-election bid in 2012. She won Greene County by four percentage points that year, even as President Obama lost to Mitt Romney there by a nearly 25-point margin. McCaskill also won Buchanan County, north of Kansas City, outperforming Obama by nine points.

But five years ago, McCaskill beat out Todd Akin, the former Republican congressman whose campaign imploded amid ill-considered comments about abortion and rape. Next year, McCaskill is likely to face Attorney General Josh Hawley (R), a far more disciplined candidate. McCaskill’s survival will depend on winning over voters for which Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhy does Bernie Sanders want to quash Elon Musk's dreams? Republican legislators target private sector election grants How Democrats can defy the odds in 2022 MORE and other down-ballot Democrats didn’t even compete.

“There are fewer socially conservative Democrats in the party,” Robertson said. “Democrats have abandoned rural areas to Republicans. They’re just not competing.”