JEFFERSON CITY — In 2016, Hillary Rodham Clinton won Missouri’s Democratic presidential primary. But just barely. Insurgent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders nearly edged her in the popular vote. Both candidates left the state with similar delegate hauls.
Four years later, there are again two leading contenders in the Missouri primary. Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden are on the ballot, along with 20 other candidates, most no longer running.
The main question: Will Missouri Democrats once again divide their votes between the top contenders, or will one candidate break through with a decisive win?
Sanders, lifted by his no-apologies progressive platform, won big in 2016 in counties with universities. But he also won in many majority white counties with strong ties to unions — places like St. Charles, Jefferson, St. Francois and Lincoln counties.
Sanders won 55% of the vote in Lincoln County four years ago, garnering 1,979 votes to Clinton’s 1,562.
Former state Rep. Ed Schieffer, a Democrat from Troy and a Biden supporter, said the former vice president could appeal to Lincoln County voters in a way Clinton didn’t.
“Union people are pretty well behind Biden,” he said, “and most moderate Democrats are behind Biden. And I think after this past week, I think you’re going to see Biden do quite well.”
(Sanders won support from 54% of union households in Missouri four years ago, according to CNN exit polling.)
A Nexstar/Emerson College poll released Thursday showed 48.1% of those polled backing Biden, and 43.7% of voters supporting Sanders. The margin of error was 4.7%, meaning the race in Missouri was statistically tied.
The poll was conducted Wednesday and Thursday. It surveyed 425 people, a smaller sample size than previous polling in the state.
“I expect it to be a very close race in this state once again,” said St. Louis Alderman Megan Green, a Sanders supporter.
Biden comes into Missouri after a string of victories on Super Tuesday. He won big in Southern states where African Americans make up large parts of the electorate — Alabama, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
He also notched wins in Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma and Texas.
Sanders, meanwhile, won his home state of Vermont. His other victories were in the West — California, Colorado and Utah — but a relatively strong performance by Biden in California ensured Sanders wouldn’t leave the state with a lopsided share of the state’s 415 delegates.
As of Friday afternoon, Biden had 651 delegates and Sanders 573, according to The Associated Press. (Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who is still running and on the Missouri ballot, has two delegates.)
Political scientists in Missouri said Biden has a chance to eat into the support Sanders won here in 2016. That year, Sanders lost statewide by 1,600 votes.
Dave Robertson, chairman of the political science department at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, said Biden’s performance in the South and West may indicate he will do well in Missouri on Tuesday.
“Sanders was not as strong as people thought he was going to be,” Robertson said. “That suggests that Sanders’ support in 2016 was perhaps due to an anti-Hillary Clinton vote.”
Peverill Squire, a professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said that Sanders has likely maintained the support he had in 2016, but he was unsure whether he has expanded his coalition.
“I think at this point I would assume most of Hillary’s support transfers over to Biden and that it’s not clear whether Sanders will be able to get much beyond what he had had last time around,” Squire said.
Because Biden hadn’t campaigned yet in Missouri, many voters might not know much about him beyond his personality, Squire said. That’s likely to change in the final hours before polls open, he said, as they become more acquainted with the candidate. Biden made a campaign appearance Saturday in downtown St. Louis; Sanders is expected on Monday.
“I think that Biden probably has an opportunity to make inroads with sort of the white working class voters in places outside of counties like Boone,” where the University of Missouri-Columbia is, Squire said. “He probably connects better with them than Hillary did, and therefore I think he might be a somewhat more difficult challenge.”
How the political winds are blowing is difficult to gauge, however, Squire said on Thursday. There has been limited polling in Missouri, and up until this week, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg had been the only candidate to invest a significant amount of resources in winning Missouri.
Bloomberg dropped out of the race on Wednesday, endorsing Biden.
There are 68 delegates at stake here Tuesday: 44 will be awarded based on performance in each congressional district, and the remaining 24 will be apportioned based on the state’s popular vote.
Missouri also has 12 “automatic” delegates to the Democratic National Convention — elected officials and party leaders — who aren’t bound by the statewide results and can support any candidate.
Michela Skelton, a Columbia volunteer for Sanders, said supporters of the Vermont senator in mid-Missouri have been developing relationships with voters for four years.
She said canvassers had focused on rural communities, younger neighborhoods with students, and working poor and lower working class neighborhoods.
“People are hurting and are looking for something different,” Skelton said. “Biden doesn’t offer rural communities anything different than the divestment that they’ve experienced over the last 30 years.”
Biden lists no field offices in Missouri, according to his campaign website, while the Sanders campaign has offices in St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield and Columbia.
Skelton said that while Sanders supporters have organizing strength, Biden has been able to convert his strong name recognition into support without spending much money.
Four years ago, while Sanders won by 22 percentage points in Boone County, Clinton won the state’s largest concentration of Democrats, in St. Louis and St. Louis County, by about 11 percentage points.
Skelton said “machine politics” and Clinton’s name recognition in Missouri largely helped lift her in St. Louis, St. Louis County and Kansas City, giving her a narrow victory.
While Clinton won in St. Louis and Kansas City, Sanders won 68 out of 114 Missouri counties in the 2016 Democratic primary.
As other candidates have dropped out, Biden has landed a string of endorsements from prominent Democrats, including St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson, former U.S. Sen. Jean Carnahan and former Gov. Jay Nixon.
Rep. Rasheen Aldridge, D-St. Louis, a Sanders supporter, said Sanders’ name recognition has only increased in the last four years. He said Sanders’ platform — including Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage — will attract working-class Missourians on Tuesday.
“His message is resonating a lot more than it was in ’16 when he was new to a lot of people,” Aldridge said.
Schieffer, the former Lincoln County state representative, said Sanders’ democratic socialist label won’t fare well in a general election.
He said Biden will be able to compete with President Donald Trump, “but I don’t think it’ll be tight if it’s Bernie Sanders on the Democratic side,” he said. “I think the title of socialist is going to be all over him.”
“He knows how it feels, what the middle class families need,” Schieffer said of Biden. “I believe we cannot totally do away with health care. I think we have to add to what Obamacare did, make it better.”
He said the country has “to do better” on prescription drug prices, the opioid epidemic and climate change.
In 2008, when Clinton faced Barack Obama, some of her strongest support was in southeast Missouri, near Arkansas, where her husband Bill Clinton had served as governor.
In 2016, she won decisively in Bootheel counties such as Dunklin, New Madrid and Pemiscot.
Josh Rittenberry, chairman of the Pemiscot County Democrats, who lost a state House election in 2018, said Bootheel Democrats favor moderate candidates over more liberal ones.
Demographics in far southeast Missouri resemble some rural areas of the South, where there are significant numbers of African Americans.
Further north, in Cape Girardeau County, home of Southeast Missouri State University, Sanders will likely have a stronger showing, Rittenberry said. Sanders won Cape Girardeau County by 5 percentage points in 2016.
The electorate farther south is “much like some of the states in the south that went big for Joe Biden yesterday,” Rittenberry said on Wednesday. “Probably Joe Biden will do very well here on Tuesday.”
Kurt Erickson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.
Get Government & Politics updates in your inbox!
Stay up-to-date on the latest in local and national government and political topics with our newsletter.