By Deirdre Shesgreen, Gannett Washington Bureau
Missouri has been a bellwether state for more than 100 years, with presidential candidates lavishing attention on Show-Me State voters and spending millions on field operations, glossy campaign mailers, and TV ads. But this election? Not so much.
This year, Missouri isn't on the list of top swing states - those vote-rich battlegrounds that political experts and campaign strategists say will determine who wins the White House on Nov. 6. Most political handicappers instead have Missouri in the "leans Republican" column.
So even though Barack Obama lost Missouri by fewer than 4,000 votes in 2008, the president's re-election campaign isn't expected to make a major investment in Missouri this time around. And Mitt Romney probably won't be tromping through the state for a bevy of big rallies or small meet-and-greets, either.
"We used to look to Missouri," said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia's Center for Politics. "We don't anymore."
Has Missouri really lost its swing-state status? And is there any chance it can get back in the game?
There's no question that other states, such as Virginia, Nevada, and Colorado, have bumped Missouri aside as an electoral battleground, because of demographic changes and political shifts within their borders. Virginia, for example, has seen a spike in affluent and politically moderate residents, particularly in the suburbs at its northern tip, outside Washington. And Colorado and Nevada have seen increases in their Hispanic populations, giving those Western states a purple hue.
Recent TV ad spending, tracked by Kantar Media's Campaign Media Analysis Group, illustrates just how far off the political screen Missouri has fallen. From April 10 to May 29, ad spending clocked in at $8.4 million in Ohio; $4.3 million in Virginia; and almost $4.1 million in Pennsylvania. Down the list were Nevada, North Carolina, Iowa, and Florida.
"Missouri is not on the presidential TV radar screen right now," said Elizabeth Wilner, who conducted the analysis and is vice president at CMAG.
Wilner said to the extent some Missourians in the northern part of the state are seeing presidential ads, it's "spillover" meant to influence voters in Iowa. That stands in sharp contrast to previous presidential contests, when Missouri airwaves were swamped with presidential TV spots early in the election season.
Wilner said the "issues menu" in this election, such as ballooning deficits and opposition to Obama's health care law, make Missouri a tough state for Democrats.
Others echoed that assessment, saying Missouri hasn't undergone any major demographic changes, but has seen a few subtle political shifts.
"I don't think anything drastic has happened in Missouri," said Richard Martin, who ran Sen. Claire McCaskill's 2006 Senate race and was the state director for Bill Clinton's re-election campaign in 1996.
"Clearly it's slightly more right-of-center today than it has been over the past 20 years," he said. "More and more Missourians who are concerned about their own balance sheet are also concerned with the country's balance sheet, and that just tends to shift voters" rightward.
Still, Martin and others say Missouri will hardly be a rout for Democrats this election. Martin noted that several statewide Democratic candidates, including incumbent Gov. Jay Nixon, are expected to win in November.
And Missouri's U.S. Senate contest is in the "toss-up" column on most political pundits' lists.
Some political experts even say that Obama and Romney's advisers are making a mistake in bypassing Missouri, arguing the outcome on election night could be a nail-biter. Polls taken so far, on average, give Romney only a 3 percentage-point edge, according to Real Clear Politics, a website that tracks elections and polls.
"Missouri is probably more competitive than a lot of the pundits think," said Peverill Squire, a political science professor at the University of Missouri. "The electorate that shows up in 2012 won't be very different from the electorate that showed up in 2008."
In that election, Obama and Republican nominee John McCain competed fiercely for Missouri, and the Arizona senator eked out a win with only 49.4 percent of the vote, to Obama's 49.2 percent.
That was only the second time since 1904 that Missouri voters have picked the losing presidential candidate. Then, the 2010 elections gave Republicans additional fodder for their argument that Missouri was turning into a red state.
That year, Republican Vicky Hartzler ousted Rep. Ike Skelton, a 17-term incumbent Democrat. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., trounced his Democratic opponent, Robin Carnahan, in the U.S. Senate contest, defying early predictions of a cliffhanger with a 13 percentage-point margin on election night. And GOP legislators increased their majorities in the General Assembly.
"When you look at the 2010 elections, there wasn't a lot for Democrats to be happy about," said Squire. But the perception that Missouri has turned definitively red is overblown, he and others said.
"It's not that Missouri is a tremendously Republican state," said Jeff Roe, a Missouri-based GOP political consultant who worked for Rick Perry's presidential campaign this election and Mike Huckabee's in 2008.
Missouri's diminished role in this election is due to the unique dynamics of the looming Obama-Romney showdown, not to any long-lasting trend, he said.
For example, Roe noted that Obama has a better chance of winning North Carolina than Missouri, in part because 21 percent of North Carolina's 9.5 million residents are black, compared to 11 percent of Missouri's 5.9 million residents. "If he can energize his base in North Carolina, he can get a better performance than he can by doing the same thing in Missouri," he said.
Plus, Obama's 2012 campaign strategy logically begins with the states he won in 2008 - not the ones he lost, even if by the slimmest of margins.
"Obama can't afford to spend any time in a state that he didn't win last time, so that alone takes Missouri off the map," said Roe.
But a different Democratic candidate running in a different year could easily put the state back in play, Roe added.
Martin agreed. "I think (Obama's advisers) have figured out an electoral strategy where they don't need" Missouri to win, he said. Like Squire, Martin said there's even a slim chance that Missouri might emerge as a battleground state late in this election season.
But if not this election, the Show-Me State will be back in the political spotlight eventually. "We've seen this pendulum swing before, and we've seen it swing right back one cycle or two later," Martin said.
Gannett Washington Bureau