Missouri anxieties spell mid-term trouble for Democrats

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Of all the little curiosities of American life, none is more curious than the way the states came by their nicknames.

Some are statements of the dazzlingly obvious - no prizes for guessing for example why Florida is the Sunshine state.

One or two have roots lost in the deltas of the past. No-one knows for sure why New York is called the Empire state for example. And not only do we not know why Indiana is the Hoosier state, we don't even know for sure what a Hoosier was. Or is.

Of all the nicknames, the best belongs to Missouri - The Show Me state.

The name captures something about the spirit of the American Mid-West, cautious and empirical for sure, but willing to follow the evidence when evidence is provided.

The perfect place, then, to assess the mood of American voters as November's mid-term elections loom.

And there's something else too. Missouri in modern times in presidential elections has been seen as a bellwether - a state which normally chooses whichever candidate goes on to win the White House.

It's not infallible (it went for John McCain by a narrow margin last time around) but it is not a state like New York or Texas where one party or the other can count on a solid majority.

A visit to Peculiar

That's largely because the population of Missouri is more or less evenly split into two camps. Around half of Missourians live in either Kansas City or St Louis, which trend Democrat, the rest are spread across farming communities which are much more conservative.

That is not a scientific snapshot of course - it hides plenty of subtleties and complexities. But then our methodology for measuring the public mood wasn't subtle or scientific either. Wherever we found Missourians at work or play, we asked them what was on their minds, as polling day approaches.

From the square dancers of Nixa, via the crazy golfers of Branson to the city fathers of the splendidly-named community of Peculiar, we found Americans hospitable, articulate and ready to talk - as in my experience they nearly always are. And when I say crazy golfers, I mean people who play crazy golf, not crazy people who play golf.

In the town of Independence we saw the birthplace of Harry Truman, one of the American presidents who shaped the modern world, and we consumed a peanut butter, cream, bacon and banana sandwich called "The Elvis" which shaped the waistline (and sealed the fate) of the King of Rock and Roll.

We talked to farmers, waitresses, party activists and holidaymakers from out of state, Republicans, Democrats and Tea-partiers alike. And if there is one common theme it is this - most, if not all, expect Barack Obama's Democrats to do badly in next month's elections. Perhaps very badly.

Most seemed to believe that the Democrats will lose control of the House of Representatives, and while many believed that they would maintain control of the Senate the assumption is that it will be with a much-reduced majority.

That would clip President Obama's wings and force him into what might be an uncomfortable period of political co-habitation with his Republican adversaries.

But the fact that most of the people we met agreed on the likely outcome does not mean of course that they agreed on how we got here.

Deficit on trial

On the outskirts of Kansas City I had breakfast with Richard Oswald, a fifth-generation farmer and lifelong Democrat. He wouldn't consider voting Republican but he said some Democrats do discuss whether or not to vote at all.

"There's disappointment with our Democrat leadership," he acknowledged. "With what they made of the opportunity they were given - even though the Republicans have been obstructing at every turn."

In Richard's view there is still, lurking just below the surface, a degree of racism in the way many on the right view Barack Obama and he admits he's not sure the president will get himself re-elected in 2012.

In Independence, Tea Party Patriot Reed Chambers II agreed that Obama will struggle to win a second term - because the tide that swept him to power, he believes, has simply faded away.

"We believe in fiscal responsibility, government limited by constitution and free trade," he told me.

"And you are going to see a Tea Party tsunami in these elections... A tidal wave of tea."

And that, I think, is the key message from our highly unscientific odyssey through Missouri, from the comfortable suburbs of Kansas City to the wild fringes of the Ozarks.

There would have been no point in asking individuals how they intended to vote themselves... our sample would have been hopelessly small.

Image caption,
The struggle to get things done could be about to become harder

But in this state where voters will choose a Democrat for County Auditor and a Republican for Sheriff, it did seem worth asking what they thought were the factors shaping the way people are voting.

Everyone we spoke to, Democrat or Republican, mentioned the deficit, questioning whether this generation of Americans is choosing to live at the expense of generations of Americans to come.

You sense that is the big idea on trial here, the whole concept of deficit spending, but it's worth noting that in this swing state even a couple of registered Democrats have told us they still believe that Barack Obama "grew up in Saudi Arabia" or "just isn't from the continental United States". It might be unfair, and it might be ridiculous to you, but it's a factor and it's not going away.


There'll be a lot of critical races to watch when the mid-terms roll around - in Alaska, Delaware and Nevada among others. But if you want to look beyond the individual races to measure which way the tides in American life are shifting then you could do worse than take a look at Missouri.

The message from the Show Me state is that anxiety over debt and the deficit is outweighing any sense of achievement that the Obama administration might point to in the fields of healthcare and stimulus spending.

And if the old adage is still true, that "as Missouri goes, so goes the nation" then our impression is that Barack Obama's Democrats are in trouble.

He did not achieve as much as hoped when he had majorities in both houses on Capitol Hill and from next month the struggle to get things done will probably be harder still.

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