October 20, 2008

The '56 Conundrum: In every close Presidential election, some notice is usually paid to the uncanny record of Missouri in picking the winning candidate. Since 1900, the Show Me State has backed the next President in all but one election, with the exception being the narrow vote for Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower in 1956. With its location, just about dead-center of the country, and its urban-rural split, it should be inevitable that it would play such a role historically.

But the one thing that never gets explained is what the hell happened in '56. Why did Adlai Stevenson, who was essentially a sacrificial lamb going up against perhaps the most popular man of the 20th Century, who failed to win any other electoral votes outside the Deep South (and even there, he did poorly for a pre-Civil Rights Era Democratic nominee, losing Louisiana, Florida, and Texas, as well as several border states), capture the state that year, when he failed to do so four years earlier, when he ran a more competitive campaign?

In the context of this election, it is usually pointed out that Stevenson, like Obama, was a popular politician from the neighboring state of Illinois. But in '52, Stevenson was an incumbent governor, whereas in '56, he had been out of office for four years, with no recent record to allure Missouri voters. And Stevenson was crushed both times in his home state. Do you think there's any chance Obama will do worse in Illinois than he does in Missouri this time around?

And it wasn't as if some local trend was pushing Missouri into the Democratic column at that time. Four years later, the state went for JFK, but by a margin barely greater than Stevenson's win in '56; in other words, it went back to reflecting the national mood.

So what was it? Was there some local issue in Missouri that swung the ultimate Swing State towards the Man from Libertyville in a year when he was losing by 20 points to Ike everywhere else? Did they feel some degree of kinship to former corporate lawyers from Chicago? Or did they just wake up on election morning and decide they liked the only Presidential nominee in history to have been born in Los Angeles? Your guess is as good as mine....

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