What the Show-Me State Shows

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Jamie Squire / Getty

A woman votes on Super Tuesday, February 5, 2008 in Kansas City, Missouri.

Over the past century, Missouri has proved a nearly flawless barometer of presidential elections. So it was only fitting in this year's muddled nomination races that both its Democratic and Republican races on Super Tuesday were two of the tightest in the nation, with Barack Obama and John McCain winning their respective contests by the slightest of margins.

On the snowy morning after the two down-to-the-wire primaries in the crucial swing state, several themes jumped out that shed light on the national races.

- Voters are jazzed about this election. Despite heavy rains, scattered tornadoes and approaching snow, Misssourians turned out in record numbers yesterday. In 2000, the last time both parties held contested primaries, Missouri voters cast about 740,000 ballots. This time, the number was around 1.4 million.

- People are especially jazzed about the Democratic race. For every three votes cast in the Republican primary, there were more than four cast in the Democratic contest. Both of the top Democrats, Obama and Hillary Clinton, won more than twice as many votes as the top Republican finisher, McCain.

- Reports of a Christian conservative takeover of the GOP have been exaggerated. While the evangelical right is a key part of the Republican coalition, it's not decisive — certainly not in a swing state. Sixty percent of Missouri voters in the Republican exit poll said they attend church least once a week. Even more — 76% — said abortion should be illegal. Yet the winner was not the first choice of evangelical Protestants opposed to abortion. Conservative Christians buoyed Mike Huckabee to a strong second-place, but Huck's inability to reach beyond that base left him an also-ran.

- Young Democrats continue to reshape the political playing field. Four years ago, under-30 voters cast 9% of the Democratic ballots, while over-65 voters cast 24%. If those proportions had held up yesterday, Hillary Clinton would have won in Missouri by more than 20,000 votes, instead of losing by 10,000. Turnout among Democrats is up dramatically across the board — but most of all among young voters.

- Obama needs strong women. If you compare his narrow win in Missouri to the thumpings he took in California and Massachusetts, the women's vote is clearly the key. Obama ran even with Clinton among women in Missouri, probably for two reasons. He has decisively won the tug-of-war over the votes of black women. But where African-Americans comprised a small segment of the vote, as they did in California and Massachusetts, this didn't help him much. He also had the vigorous support of Missouri's leading Democratic women — Sen. Claire McCaskill and former Sen. Jean Carnahan — who appeared together in radio and television ads for Obama.

- Be skeptical of all future reports that Hillary Clinton is fading. Twice now, after the Iowa caucuses and on the eve of Super Tuesday, Obama has surged in the polls and thrilled the Democratic elites. And his strength in this race is real. Yesterday in Missouri, he drew roughly as many votes as the entire Democratic field — eight candidates — tallied four years ago. But Clinton is just as strong. Her losing effort this year racked up nearly twice as many votes as John Kerry managed in his landslide 2004 primary victory. This is a battle of behemoths, and if Missouri is any guide — and it usually is — the winner won't be known until the very end.