Page last updated at 11:58 GMT, Friday, 21 November 2008

Missouri loses bellwether status

By Max Deveson
BBC News, Washington

The vote tally from the last state finally came in on Wednesday, more than two weeks after election day - John McCain has won in the state of Missouri.

A voter marks a ballot in Kansas City, Missouri, 4 November 2008
Missouri voters have ended their winning streak

Nothing surprising about this. The state voted for Mr McCain's Republican colleague George W Bush in 2000 and 2004.

But on the other hand, a pattern has been broken. Until this year, Missouri had voted for the winning candidate every year since 1956 - and, if you disregard 1956, from as far back as 1904.

So the Show-Me state is no longer America's bellwether - the state that reflects the views of the nation as a whole.

Was 2008 a blip, or a sign that Missouri is no longer representative of the US?

More Republican

The figures show an exceptionally close race, one reason it has taken so long to produce a result.

John McCain: 1,445,812 (49%)
Barack Obama: 1,442,180 (49%)
Ralph Nader (Independent): 17,813 (1%)
Bob Barr (Libertarian): 11,386
Chuck Baldwin (CST): 8,201
State results may not be certified until 9 December
John McCain beat Barack Obama by a small but significant 3,632 votes, according to the final, (as-yet uncertified) vote count.

The gap between the third and fourth-placed candidates was considerably wider. So Missouri could easily have voted for the winner in 2008 too.

But it didn't and in fact the writing has been on the wall for Missouri for several years now.

In the past few elections, the state has become increasingly Republican.

In 1996, Missouri voted for Bill Clinton by a margin of 6.3 percentage points, just 2.32 percentage points below Mr Clinton's national margin of victory.

BELLWETHER: 1. the leading sheep of a flock, often with a bell on its neck 2. a leader or indicator of a trend
Concise Oxford English dictionary
In 2000, that gap grew to 3.86 points, by 2004 it had reached 4.84 points, and in 2008 Missouri was 6.89 points more Republican than the nation as a whole.

What has changed?

Demographically, Missouri used to be a microcosm of America.

With its identical combination of urban centres and rural areas, and a similar racial mix to America as a whole, it was little surprise that Missouri voted along the same lines as the nation.

But America's racial mix is changing - and Missouri is not keeping up with the changes.

African-Americans make up 11.3% of Missouri's population, similar to the 12.3% of African-Americans nationwide.

But the fastest-growing ethnic group in America is Hispanic - and Missouri's Hispanic population is just 3%, compared to the 12.5% national average.

Hispanic voters backed Barack Obama nationally by a ratio of two to one - so Missouri's relative lack of Hispanics may well have made a difference.

Missouri also has a greater share of evangelical Christian voters than America as a whole, a group that tends to vote Republican.

'Fruitless search'

Now that Missouri's decades-long winning streak has run out, which state can lay claim to the title of America's bellwether?

No state comes close to an exact replica of the complex and ever-changing demographics of the United States
Dr Larry Sabato
University of Virginia
Ohio now boasts the longest unbroken run - it has correctly voted for the winner in every presidential election since 1960.

Nevada also has a strong claim - it has only voted for the losing candidate once since 1912 (in 1976).

But Josh Goodman, of makes the case for Iowa. The Hawkeye state has not been good at picking winners - it voted for the losing candidate in 1960, 1976, 1988 and 2000, but in percentage terms, it's never been far wrong.

The percentage gap between the two main candidates has been within about 2.5% of the gap between the candidates at national level in the last five elections.

Larry Sabato, Professor of Political Science at the University of Virginia, says that ultimately, trying to identify bellwethers may not be a worthwhile enterprise.

"The search for a bellwether is both eternal and fruitless." he told BBC News.

"No state comes close to an exact replica of the complex and ever-changing demographics of the United States. [America] may have Holiday Inns and McDonalds restaurants everywhere, but it really isn't homogenised."

Political junkies and amateur psephologists will probably always be obsessed with identifying the states - and even the counties - that reflect the views of the nation as a whole.

From now on, however, they will stop focusing quite so much on Missouri.

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