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With population shifts and microtargeting, suburban and rural voters have a strong voice

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 22, 2012 - David Shaw lives in the Southwest Garden neighborhood of St. Louis, and he likes to joke that he has met the other Republican city-dweller.

Bunnie Gronborg lives in Festus, where she spends Sundays knocking on doors in her rural community, canvassing for Claire McCaskill. 

And Linda Jamerson grew up in a Democratic family in the city, changed her perspectives when she joined the military, then again when she spent 20 years in St. Charles raising her son. Now, she’s back in the city of St. Louis, and considers herself independent.

Each of them stands out from most of their neighbors, at least politically.

In 2008, John McCain got 49.4 percent of the vote in Missouri, and 49.3 went to President Barack Obama. The numbers aren’t so even when you start zooming in, though.

Obama won 83.7 percent of the vote in St. Louis, according to the Missouri secretary of state’s website, while he won 59.5 percent of the vote in St. Louis County. In constrast, McCain won in St. Charles County with 54.4 percent of the vote. In Franklin County, McCain took 55.5 percent, while in Jefferson County, Obama won 50.6 percent of the vote. 

The population in Missouri has shifted over time, moving from urban to suburban and rural. That’s nothing new.

What is new, says Ken Warren, a political science professor at St. Louis University, is the success of getting more people to vote through microtargeting.

Example: The state as a whole had more than 2.3 million voters in 2000, and in 2008, more than 2.9 million. That change is not because of added population, Warren says. 

It’s microtargeting.

From micro to metro

Microtargeting wasn’t born in the political world, but it has been adopted there. Instead, it began, and is still used, by private businesses to market to customers. Think about how Netflix seems to know the right movies to recommend, Warren says, or how your browser offers ads and products that you’re likely to want. That’s microtargeting. It’s a process, Warren says, and one that political parties began using for their own purposes in 2004.

“It essentially includes the gathering of any information that could be related to voters in a way that they could be targeted by one party to pull the vote for that party,” Warren says. 

Using data, including socioeconomic and political information, political parties appeal directly to people to get them out to vote, to donate money, to volunteer and to work for the party. It’s effective, Warren says, and it saves the campaigns money they’d otherwise spend in big flyer drops or other mass-marketing efforts.

“Both parties have done it, and both parties have been successful,” he says. “But the Republican Party has been more successful.”

That means that in Missouri in 2008, Greene County, with 190,417 registered voters, had a voter turnout of 135,140, according to the secretary of state’s website. And St. Louis, with 257,442 registered voters, had a voter turnout of 158,077.

And what that means, Warren says, is that rural and suburban voters have a much stronger voice than they have had in the past. 

“What’s new is the success of the Republicans in targeting rural voters and turning them out,” Warren says. “This is really what it’s all about.”

Everyday we're shuffling

Microtargeting has been effective so far, but the changing population in the St. Louis metro area is also a reality. 

Since 1960, the St. Louis metropolitan statistical area added 11 counties to the original five that made up the core. It now includes Franklin, Jefferson, Lincoln, Warren and Washington in Missouri, and Bond, Calhoun, Clinton, Jersey, Macoupin and Monroe in Illinois. 

From 1950 to 2010, St. Louis lost population, falling from 856,796 to 319,294, according to the U.S. Census Bureau

As those population in the city decreased, other areas saw an increase. St. Charles County grew from 29,834 in 1950 to 360,485 in 2010 (now making it larger than St. Louis). In Illinois, Madison County had 182,307 people in 1950 and 269,282 in 2010. 

East West Gateway Council of Governments has a map showing these changes, says John Posey, director of research.

“You can see that in 1950, the St. Louis UA (urban area) was almost entirely within Lindbergh Blvd., on the Missouri side, and East St. Louis and Granite City on the Illinois side. By 2010, the UA had expanded to western St. Charles County, southern Jefferson County, and the middle third of Madison and St. Clair counties,” Posey writes in an e-mail. 

And unlike Colorado, Nevada and Alabama, where immigration has changed the landscape, Missouri still has a relatively low number of immigrants.

In 2009, according to Where We Stand, a report from East West Gateway, the St. Louis region had 113,742 immigrants, and ranked 33 among 35 for immigrant populations among peer regions, including Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Minneapolis and Charlotte. 

As a result of that, race issues between blacks and whites are still prevalent here, says Todd Swanstrom, Des Lee endowed professor of community collaboration and public policy administration at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.  

“The racial divide still remains in Missouri more than with other states, where the racial divide has been made more complicated by immigration,” he says.

As a state, Warren says, Missouri is still fairly evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. But the urban areas of Kansas City and St. Louis tend to vote differently than the rural ones. 

“There’s not much that unites them on the issues,” he says. 

He predicts that Romney will take the state, but that Obama still will make a dent.

“I think that the rural areas will blow him away, and the urban areas will vote for him overwhelmingly, like they did last time.”

In his research, Swanstrom found that where you live matters. It can influence how you vote, thanks to the diversity or homogeneity of your community and the information you get from inside that community. 

But the liberal Gronberg in Festus, independent Jamerson coming from St. Charles and now in St. Louis, and conservative Joseph Higgs in St. Louis all offer a counter to the majority in their communities. 

From metro to micro

Health-care reform is a big issue for Gronberg, who supports the president’s health-care reform act and thinks it will work if people give it time.

“This is what happened with Romneycare in Massachusetts,” she says. 

She’s also very concerned with gay rights and women’s issues. She considers herself pro-life, she says, but also pro-choice.

“I have granddaughters and daughters-in-law,” she says. “You have to be able to make decisions regarding your own body.”

Gronberg, who is a member of Women’s Voices Raised for Social Justiceand retired from public library service, plans to vote for Obama and McCaskill. 

She lives in a very conservative community, she says, and sees microtargeting efforts appealing to her neighbors from conservative campaigns and active churches.

For St. Louis-to-St. Charles-to-St. Louis-transplant, Jamerson, “the No. 1 issue is the economy, and the other issue second to that is health care.”

She plans to vote for Obama, not because of his approach to health care, however, but because he seems approachable, she says, and sincere about getting the economy back on track. 

Jamerson, who served in the military, lost her job in education and is currently unemployed, working on her doctorate in education. When she goes back to visit friends and old neighbors in St. Charles, she sees signs for Romney and Akin. In the city, they’re for Obama.

“I think it just really depends on where you live and the issues that are most important to you as an individual,” she says.

Joseph Higgs, a conservative who lives in the Dutchtown neighborhood of St. Louis, is concerned first about the economy. 

“I’m self-employed,” says Higgs, who operates Nitro Joe Science, which offers science performances and assemblies for children. “I basically live off what’s called discretionary income.”

If people don’t feel they have extra money to spend, then he’s out of work. 

As a father of five, Higgs also worries about the future security of the country, our ability to stand up to China and how the American economy looks long-term. 

“The biggest thing for me is the economy,” he says, “everything else can be taken care of locally.”

Romney sealed the deal with Higgs when he selected U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., as his running mate, Higgs says. 

“I was like, OK, now you’re being serious.”

And he’ll also vote for Akin, despite what he sees as Akin’s inability to sometimes clearly say what he’s trying to say. Higgs likes Akin’s background and his values.

In his neighborhood this election season, Higgs isn’t seeing what he saw four years ago. 

“There was a lot more of a buzz for the president,” he says. “People were on the streets, people were knocking on doors, there were signs everywhere. There are no signs here.”

Even in his own family and amongst Democratic friends, there’s a sense that people may vote for Obama because they have to, he says, or they may not vote for him at all. 

He has seen signs of microtargeting rurally, though.

In small-town Illinois, where he worked last week near Effingham, there were signs in nearly every yard that read “Fire Obama.”

The economy’s also the biggest issue for Shaw, a Republican who works in pharmaceuticals and lives in the city. But for the first time in his life, he’s not sure who he’ll really vote for on Nov. 6.

“I have never been undecided on a presidential election this late in the year,” he says. “I’m absolutely appalled with both of them.”

Shaw feels the same way about Missouri’s senatorial candidates. He know’s he’ll vote, but not yet for whom.

“Just when I start to think, OK, I can vote for Romney, then he’ll say something stupid.”

Obama does the same, he says. 

Most of the microtargeting he’s seen seems to be appealing to people who were already going to vote for that candidate. And he very well could get to election day and still not know how to vote.

He joked the other day with some friends about the 1985 movie, “Brewster’s Millions,” where star Richard Pryor encourages people to vote for none-of-the-above.

“That’s kind of what I feel like right now,” Shaw says. “Vote for none-of-the-above.”

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