“Which states are you watching?” That’s a question I get a lot. There are Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, of course. Even more peripheral states like Georgia have made some news. But I’m increasingly interested in a state that few people seem to be talking about: Missouri. Polls show not only a tight presidential race in the Show-Me State, but also a fairly close Senate race. Oh, and Missouri may keep a Democrat in its governor’s mansion.
Missouri was a key swing state for much of the 20th century. In a country where political divisions have historically been sewn along geographic lines, Missouri includes a bit of a few regions. And political nerds might remember that it voted for the winner in every presidential election from 1904 through 2004, with the exception of 1956, when it voted for Adlai Stevenson.
In recent years, Missouri has become more Republican-leaning, largely because of population growth in the state’s redder areas — the suburbs and exurbs of St. Louis, for example — that has outpaced growth in its reliably blue cities. White, culturally conservative voters in rural areas, meanwhile, have abandoned the Democratic Party for the GOP just as they have in states farther south.
So Missouri wasn’t on most people’s lists of swing states this year. President Obama lost it by a hair in 2008 but got walloped there in 2012, losing by over 9 percentage points despite winning nationwide by 4 points. This year, Hillary Clinton is currently forecast to win nationally by 7 points, so you’d expect her to be losing to Donald Trump by about 6 points in Missouri on a uniform national swing (Clinton is doing 3 points better than Obama did nationally, so add 3 points to Obama’s 2012 margin in Missouri). But in an average of three Missouri polls since the summer’s political conventions,1 Clinton trailed Donald Trump by only 2 points; she wasn’t behind by more than 3 in any of those surveys.
The Show-Me State is still very unlikely to play a crucial role in the Electoral College — if Clinton carries it, she’s likely to be winning in a near rout nationally. But why is Clinton doing better in Missouri than a uniform swing would imply? It’s tough to say exactly, but the most recent Monmouth University poll suggests that it’s largely due to Trump’s weakness among college-educated voters. The Monmouth poll found Clinton leading Trump by 5 percentage points among voters with at least a college education. In 2012, Obama lost that same group in Missouri by about 7 points. That’s a 12-point swing. Among people without college degrees, Obama lost by about 10 points. Clinton trails with that group by 6 points, according to the Monmouth survey. That’s only a 4-point swing. This pattern matches what we’ve seen in Georgia, a red state where Clinton appears to be competitive because of how much better she is doing among voters with higher levels of education than Obama did.
Whatever the cause, the post-convention polls in Missouri have been closer than those in many states often referred to as battlegrounds. Yet I hear very few people mention Missouri as a state Clinton could win.
What makes the lack of attention being paid to Missouri all the more odd to me is that there’s a pretty close Senate race there as well. Republican Sen. Roy Blunt leads Democrat Jason Kander by 6 percentage points, according to the HuffPost Pollster aggregate. That lead is a equal to the 6-point edge that Republican Sen. Marco Rubio has in Florida and Republican Sen. Rob Portman has in Ohio. Missouri has just as close a Senate race as Florida and Ohio and a tighter presidential race. Think about that for a second.
Now, I get that we’ve seen an increase in straight-ticket voting (voters choosing one party for all races) over the past few decades. If the presidential race were tighter nationally, it would be hard to imagine Kander winning. But because the presidential contest is so close in Missouri, a win by Kander is more conceivable. Also, Missouri voters have shown a willingness to vote for Democrats in recent statewide elections. Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill easily won re-election in 2012, in large part because of Todd Akin’s infamous rape comment. That same year, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon cruised to a second term. This year, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Koster is ahead in the polls over his Republican opponent, Eric Greitens.
Missouri deserves some attention this election season. The polls show Republicans are favorites to carry the presidential and Senate race in the state, but it’s no sure thing. And with Missouri’s history as a swing state and unique political geography, watching it all play out should be interesting.