Lincoln County, Mo., has mirrored the national vote in the past 12 presidential elections. It is the only bellwether county left in the nation's only bellwether state. And it is one of just six bellwether counties across the country.
But politics is a lot like the stock market. Past performance does not guarantee future results. Predicting the outcome of the next presidential vote is difficult in Lincoln County now.
"It's like the rest of the country right now. It's really split," says Kelly Hardcastle, Lincoln County's emergency management director, floodplain manager and economic development director. "When you talk to folks and you see [lawn] signs, it's really hard to get a grasp on who's ahead right now."
The rural county of close to 60,000 sits on the fringes of the St. Louis metropolitan area along the Mississippi River. The population has nearly doubled since the 2000 and 2004 elections. Subdivisions sprouted on county farmland.
"They're basically moving to this area [to get] out of the more urbanized area," Hardcastle notes. "It's country [here]. It's rural. They like the peaceful, natural, laid-back atmosphere that's here."
The influx of newcomers from the St. Louis suburbs is one reason Lincoln County politics are difficult to predict now.
"We're rural [and we] suddenly turned exurban very quickly," says Thomas Burkemper, a lawyer in the Lincoln County seat of Troy and chairman of the county's Democratic Central Committee. "This influx of 'foreigners' who vote Republican in an old southern Democratic county" is changing local politics.
Lincoln County was dominated by conservative Democrats for more than a century. They tended to vote Democratic in local elections but often chose more conservative Republican candidates in presidential contests.
"Locally, people were afraid to run as a Republican. But nationally they would vote Republican," says Carol Wessel, a real estate agent who serves as chairwoman of the Lincoln County Republican Central Committee. "They would come up to me and say, 'Carol, I'm really a Republican. But ... because I want this position, I've got to run as a Democrat.'"
Voting For Social Issues
Wessel says local Democrats and Republicans share strong conservative beliefs opposing abortion, gay marriage and gun control. They also share values based on religion. They're Catholics and Baptists, and they go to church.
And the newcomers "increased substantially the church attendance," according to Burkemper, who asks and answers this question:
"How hard will the churches come out and swear that we either vote for McCain or go to hell? I don't think that the churches are going to cut the same swath in this election as they did in 2004 and 2000. Because the people are hurting. ... The people are angry about the economy."
"People are stressed because of gas costs," Hardcastle says, noting that commuting to jobs outside the county involves 50 miles of driving and more a day. "In 1997, [gas] was below a dollar a gallon. And people were thinking, 'Hey, I can work in the city but I can live in the country'... And now folks are finding, 'Hey, I have a great-paying job. But I'm paying $400, $500, almost a $1,000 a month just to get back and forth to work.'"
Energy and food costs are also rising, forcing what might be a tough political choice for some old timers and newcomers.
"Are the social issues that they have really stood firm on going to dictate how they vote?" Hardcastle asks. "Or is the economy going to [determine] how they vote this time?"
Wessel has confronted conservatives who cite the economy when they tell her they won't vote for Republican John McCain.
"I tell them 'I'm a Christian first,'" Wessel recalls. " 'And if you vote your true Christian values and vote for the candidate that you think is ethically right and has the [right] values, that will take care of the economy."
Wessel also has to contend with Republican ambivalence toward McCain, even among party activists.
Residents Ignore Party Allegiance
At a recent Republican Central Committee meeting in Troy, farmer Neal Westhoff described his own resignation. "There are things about McCain that drive me crazy. He is not the conservative that I would love to have in there. But he's the one we chose. And he's so much more conservative than Obama."
There's no ambivalence among some of the regulars at the daily coffee and conversation gatherings at the Landmark Restaurant in Troy. Twice a day, a group of farmers, fishermen and retirees sit at a large round table reserved for them. It has a sign above it that declares the group the "College of Knowledge."
"Locally, I support our local Democratic leaders because I know in their hearts they're Christians," says retired truck driver and businessman Gene Tucker. "But nationally, I'm against [the Democrats]. And as far as Obama, I don't think Obama has the experience to be our president."
The Undecided Vote
Each candidate does have a solid base of support in Lincoln County. There are plenty of people who will sing the praises of their favorite candidate and his attributes, positions and policies. But winning the county appears to depend on undecided voters.
That group includes Michael Burkemper, an insurance broker and brother of the chairman of the local Democratic Party.
Michael tends to vote Republican and is strongly anti-abortion. "However, there are lots of important issues for a person to consider," he says. "The continuation of the Iraq war is the main issue [on which] I oppose John McCain. The second thing I worry about is his age, particularly after he brought in Sarah [Palin]."
Michael Burkemper isn't sure Palin is ready to be president. He's not sure about Obama, either, although he praises attributes of both Obama and McCain.
"I haven't made up my mind as to which way I'm going to vote," Burkemper adds. "If I had to cast a vote today, I'm just not certain which way I would go."
Barb Nickel has also been undecided. Nickel owns a gift basket business and has prepared thousands of welcome baskets for Lincoln County newcomers. She also praises both McCain and Obama but worries about the economy and health care, especially as she considers joining her husband in retirement.
"We don't want to become the senior citizen that has to make a decision between a pill and a can of chili," Nickel says, as she declares that she is now leaning toward Obama. "I don't think I want to live through four more years of what we just went through eight years of."
Democratic Committee Chairman Thomas Burkemper suggests one more factor in the Lincoln County vote.
"I don't want race to be a factor, but it may be," Burkemper says, citing a history of slavery in the county before the Civil War. His family owned slaves. "We are a Southern Democrat state, and we still have those hidden prejudices. ... It's time we got past it. If Obama wins in Lincoln County, that means we accept diversity, finally."
Carol Wessel, the Republican Party chairwoman, is confident Lincoln County will continue the Republican trend of the past two presidential elections and support McCain. But will the county continue its bellwether record?
"Well, we've had this for a long time," Wessel responds. "And I hope to keep it. But I wouldn't want to put money on it."