By Eric Bohl
“All politics is local” used to be a universally-accepted truth in American elections. In recent years, many pundits have argued that the advent of cable news and social media has led voters to lose their local identity and increasingly select candidates based on national issues and trends. However, occasionally an opportunity presents itself to clearly test this premise.
About a month before Missouri’s U.S. Senate election, a cellphone video of incumbent Claire McCaskill emerged on the internet. In what appeared to be a pep talk to campaign supporters in St. Louis, she said, “If we do our job in St. Louis County, you know, I can give up a few votes in the Bootheel.” If political scientists could devise a more perfect test for the local/national election hypothesis, this one would be difficult to beat.
Missouri’s Bootheel is fairly cleanly defined by the Mississippi Delta lowlands region, encompassing Scott, Stoddard, Mississippi, New Madrid, Dunklin and Pemiscot Counties, and the southeast half of Butler County. More importantly, it has a distinctly southern culture and has a deeply-held regional identity. Bootheel farmers proudly raise cotton and rice and are not newcomers to SEC football.
After running the numbers, it’s clear that Bootheel voters did not take kindly to being slighted. We compared Senator-elect Hawley’s numbers in his 2016 Attorney General race to the 2018 Senate race to see which counties his vote share changed the most. Since the Senate race was far more competitive across the board, unsurprisingly his margins this year were tighter in almost all of Missouri’s 114 counties.
But the 16 counties that bucked the trend were far from random. Scott, Pemiscot, New Madrid, Mississippi and Dunklin counties were the top five movers toward Hawley in the entire state. All five of these deep Bootheel counties voted over 65% for Hawley over McCaskill despite their historical Democrat roots. Stoddard was not far behind, moving toward Hawley the 14th-most of any county. In all, nine of the top 14 movers were counties in southeast Missouri.
It’s true that the counties in the Bootheel are far less populated than Democratic strongholds like St. Louis. The five top counties in this list combined cast about 36,500 votes, while St. Louis City and County had over 563,500, or about 15 times as many. But the sentiment Bootheel voters felt from McCaskill was one of indifference, and many other parts of rural Missouri felt similarly.
McCaskill only carried five counties plus the city of St. Louis. Hawley won the remaining 109 counties with about 64 percent of the vote – almost two-thirds. The overwhelming sentiment in these rural parts of the state was that Hawley cared about people like them while his opponent was fine “giving up” a few votes like theirs.
Rural voters still have pride in their communities and expect to be treated respectfully by their elected officials. In 2018, one of the biggest lessons from Missouri is that local politics still matters. If officials do not respect their constituents and their communities, they will still be held accountable at the ballot box.
Eric Bohl, of Columbia, Mo., is Director of Public Affairs for Missouri Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization.