St. Louis Oracle

St. Louis-based political forecasting plus commentary on politics and events from a grassroots veteran with a mature, progressive anti-establishment perspective.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Re-examining Missouri's urban/rural electoral split

Right after the 2004 election, I posted about the widening electoral gap between metropolitan voters and those in rural or exurban counties, in the context of the evangelical vote. Two presidential elections later, this urban/rural split has not only persisted, it has intensified.

I observed in that original post that, while Missouri’s rural areas have been more Republican in presidential elections than metropolitan areas for years, recent elections have markedly increased the spread. In the 11 presidential elections from 1952-1992, this spread averaged about seven percentage points. The difference was never greater than the 14-point spread in the 1960 religious war centered on the first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, and the spread virtually disappeared in the 1976 election involving born-again Christian Jimmy Carter, but seven points was a pretty typical spread.

Then, a realignment of voters began during the 1990s, in which rural evangelicals disgusted by the Clinton sex scandals switched from voting Democrat to Republican, followed by a counter-shift of
“old money” aristocrats and suburban “soccer moms” who were uncomfortable with the social conservatism of the new party members. The urban/rural spread crept up to 12 points in Clinton’s 1996 re-election, and exploded at the start of the 21st Century. In both 2000 and 2004, the metropolitan vote went more Democratic than before, and the exurban and rural vote went more Republican. In 2008, both areas trended Democratic, but metropolitan areas did it more. In 2012 both areas trended Republican, but rural areas did it more. The common thread was the increase in the spread, from 12 points in 1996 to 16 points in 2000, 21 in 2004, 23 in 2008 and up to 25 points in 2012.

County-by-county election returns demonstrate this realignment. Prior to the Clinton years, many Missouri rural counties (especially in eastern Missouri) had been Democratic since the Civil War. Democrats won both houses of the Missouri legislature every time from 1956 through 2000. As recently as 1988, when George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in Missouri, 52-48, Dukakis won 33 rural counties. By 2004, when George W. Bush defeated John Kerry in Missouri, 53-46 (fairly similar to the elder Bush's 1988 margin), Kerry lost every rural county except one. A Democratic wave in 2008 helped Obama win six rural/exurban counties, but in 2012 he too could carry only one. And the lone Democrat holdout in 2012 was Boone, whose electorate is disproportionately influenced by a large liberal academic community.

Meanwhile, St. Louis County flipped the other way. After voting reliably Republican for many years, including the Bush-Dukakis contest in 1988, the county went for Clinton in 1992 and for every Democratic presidential nominee since then. The suburban part of the realignment mentioned above has been evident in “old money” areas of St. Louis County, like Clayton, Ladue and Webster Groves, but the Democrat takeover of the county was magnified by a major, non-realignment factor, the migration into the county of African American Democrats.

In Missouri, the rural/suburban trade-off has benefited Republicans. The state's congressional delegation was 6-3 Democratic when Clinton won in 1992. Today Republicans hold a 6-2 advantage. Similarly, Democrats maintained control of both houses of the Missouri legislature until 2002, and Republicans have controlled both houses ever since.