Absentee increases, suburban shifts and a bygone bellwether: Missouri’s 2020 election by the numbers

On the surface, the 2020 election in Missouri seems similar to that of 2016 — no county in the state flipped its vote for president, the five state-level offices up for grabs remained Republican, and the state voted for President Donald Trump by a significant margin. But, seemingly slight changes accumulate to become part of the larger trend of a red tide that has swept up Missouri in the last two decades.

After analyzing county-level election results from 2016 and 2020, here are a few takeaways from this year’s election, and some reasons why Platte County stood out from the rest.

Galloway underperforms Koster

Incumbent Gov. Mike Parson won the race for governor with 57.2% of the vote against Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway’s 40.6%. Though a pre-election poll pegged Parson as the favorite, it underestimated his advantage in the race.

Chris Koster, the Democrat who ran against former Gov. Eric Greitens in 2016, did better than Galloway in every single county except St. Louis County. Greitens captured 51.3% of the vote in 2016, to Koster’s 45.4%.

Galloway underperformed Koster by just under 5 points across the state, but she had larger losses than that in 102 counties.. Even in many counties where President-Elect Joe Biden drew more support in 2020 than former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did in 2016, Galloway still underperformed Koster.

This change is representative of Missouri’s weakening position as a battleground state, according to Kenneth Warren, a professor and political analyst at St. Louis University. He said Missouri used to be a bellwether state — from 1904 to 2004, Missouri ended up voting for the winner of all but one presidential election. However, Missouri diverged from the national presidential choice in 2008, when President Barack Obama won. The state has voted red ever since, going against the country’s eventual presidential choice in three of the last four elections.

“Why did Galloway lose?” Warren said. “She was a victim of a state that’s turned from being the most competitive bellwether state in the 1990s to a state that has increasingly gone Republican.”

How did this happen? Warren said it’s due in part to the “reawakening of the evangelical voters,” who are a reliable Republican base, and turnout of Republican voters increasing more rapidly than Missouri’s population as a whole in the last two decades.

Big boost in voter turnout follows trend

According to unofficial results, Missouri voter turnout for the presidential election increased by about 7.3% from 2016 to 2020. About 2.81 million Missourians voted for president in 2016, with around 3.01 million voting this year. By contrast, from 2012 to 2016, total voters for the presidential race in Missouri increased only 1.7%.

Even before this year, voter turnout in Missouri was increasing at a quick pace. Warren said in the book “Presidential Swing States” that while Missouri’s population only increased 7% from 2000 to 2010 (the state actually lost an electoral vote after the 2010 census because of its slow growth), voter turnout in the state increased 24% from 2000 to 2008. Between 1996 and 2012, Republican votes for presidential candidates in Missouri increased 66.6%. Democratic votes increased just 19.3% in the same time period.

This year, counties in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas experienced large rises in voter turnout. Platte County, in the Kansas City area, had the highest increase, up more than 19% from 2016. Other urban or suburban areas, like Clay County and Jackson County, both in the Kansas City area, had voter increases over 12%.

The pandemic caused many voters to avoid polling places, leading to a surge in absentee voting and mail-in ballots. The number of absentee and mailed votes in Missouri this year nearly tripled from 2016.

Biden outperforms Clinton in suburbs

Biden ended in Missouri with just over 41% of the vote, up from Hillary Clinton’s 38% in 2016. Most of those gains came in the suburbs, where he saw increases larger than that 3-point statewide improvement.

Most notable was Platte County, which Trump won by nearly 12 points in 2016, capturing 52.8% of the vote, compared to 40.9% for Clinton. Although Trump still won Platte County this year, the margin was much closer, with Trump winning by about 2 points, securing 50% of the vote to Biden’s 48%.

Other counties in the state’s larger metro areas had similar shifts toward Biden. The president-elect outperformed Clinton by at least 5 points in Platte, Clay and Jackson counties in the Kansas City area; St. Louis and St. Charles counties in the St. Louis area; Boone County, which includes Columbia; and Greene County, where Springfield is located. Despite Biden’s improvement over Clinton in those seven counties, he only won two of them — St. Louis and Boone.

Biden was projected to do well in the suburbs this year after polling showed a trend of suburban voters who had voted for Trump in 2016 shifting their support to Biden this year.

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