How Obama won Missouri

Late ballots from St. Louis help Barack Obama win a squeaker in a bellwether state.

Published February 6, 2008 6:56AM (EST)

KANSAS CITY, MO. -- When Missouri votes, the nation pays attention. And if what happened in the bellwether state on Super Tuesday is any indication, we're in for a real nail-biter in the months to come.

All evening, as results came in, Hillary Clinton seemed to be leading Barack Obama by a margin of several points. At an Obama watch party at a historic theater in the heart of Midtown Kansas City, the tables, draped with white tablecloths, were less than a quarter full, and almost all eyes in the room were glued to the big screen, where a local weatherman was calling for a rare phenomenon known as "thundersnow" -- a combo of snow, thunder and lightning. "It doesn't happen very often," he said. At that point, thundersnow seemed a bit more likely than Obama carrying Missouri.

One Obama supporter, a University of Missouri-Kansas City English major in a red sweatshirt and plaid pajama bottoms, with tousled hair and a day's worth of stubble, sat quietly at a table with a friend, looking dejected but still clinging to hope. "It's still up in the air," Richard Thompson said. "But it looks like Hillary's got an edge," he admitted.

The Associated Press actually called Missouri for Clinton. But as more returns came in, her lead narrowed. Then as late returns from St. Louis came in it flipped and suddenly Obama took the lead -- with 98 percent of precincts reporting -- by one point. When all the votes were counted, Obama had done what had looked unlikely a few hours before: pulled out a victory in Missouri. He won by 10,000 votes out of more than 820,000 votes cast.

The night was a replay of the tension and slip-sliding polls in the weeks and days leading up to Super Tuesday. Clinton had been predicted to win, despite Obama's endorsements by a number of political heavyweights in the state, including Sen. Claire McCaskill, who recorded a last-minute robocall on his behalf. A notable exception was Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, former Kansas City mayor, and an African-American reverend who co-chaired Clinton's Missouri campaign. But a Reuters/C-SPAN/Zogby poll, the results released Monday, delivered the surprising prediction of an Obama win in Missouri.

Missouri, which in some ways mimics the political makeup of the United States with blue on either side and red in the rural middle, has a solid history of picking presidential winners. In the primary, Obama won the blue cities on the eastern and western borders, St. Louis and Kansas City, and the college town of Columbia, and Clinton won nearly every other county.

High voter turnout across Missouri -- more than 30 percent of registered voters in some areas -- including in African-American wards, where exit polls showed Obama getting around 80 percent of the vote, helped drive the turnaround. The high number of independent voters who turned out -- a quarter of all voters in the Democratic primary in Missouri identified as independents -- also apparently aided Obama.

In Kansas City and St. Louis, voters came out in force for Obama on Tuesday. That played out as dusk fell on Tuesday, accompanied by an icy drizzle and chilly winds, and after-work voters began streaming into a library on Prospect Avenue, in Kansas City's urban core. Poll workers there said turnout had been steady all day.

One 21-year-old voter, William Buckman, was perhaps an example of the "Obamamania" that has swept 20-something voters. "I think he's the best candidate to clean up the mess Bush made," said Buckman, who said he's in training to become a firefighter. "I really like the way he speaks, and I just feel more attached to him than any other candidate." After revealing her support for Hillary Clinton, kindergarten teacher Tina Murray joked, "I'm not going to have any friends left."

At the Saint James United Methodist Church, one of Kansas City's largest historically black churches and the church pastored by U.S. Rep. Cleaver, turnout was steady, with many voters saying they chose Obama.

"There's a long line downstairs, thank God," said one church member, as a choir began to warm up upstairs.

One voter, Carmen Swift, a 32-year-old radiologist, said she chose Obama because "I just felt he takes a stronger stand on things."

The mood was upbeat -- and hectic -- at Obama's cramped storefront headquarters on Main Street in the Midtown neighborhood.

"I really feel good," said Colin Chambers, a 23-year-old Obama volunteer, who was tapping away at the keyboard of a computer Tuesday evening as the sky darkened and polling places began to close. "I went to a lot of polling places this morning, talked with a lot of voters, and it really seems like there's a lot of energy around Obama."

By Allie Johnson

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