WASHINGTON • Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are in a virtual tie in Missouri, according to a new Post-Dispatch poll.
A survey of 625 likely voters conducted last weekend shows the Democrat Clinton with 41 percent to the Republican Trump’s 40 percent, with Libertarian Gary Johnson at 9 percent. The telephone poll, conducted by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
Mason-Dixon pollster Brad Coker said the results suggest Missouri may be returning to the national barometer status it held before 2008.
Starting in 1960, the Show-Me state voted for the national winner in 12 straight presidential elections, switching between Democrat and Republican choices that mirrored the nation’s preference. But the last Democratic presidential candidate to win Missouri was Bill Clinton in 1996.
Coker said doubts about both major candidates’ characters overlay the 2016 campaign in Missouri, and that the support for Johnson hurts Trump more than Clinton. Those factors make the race hard to predict, he said, but the underlying numbers suggest it will be a closer race than in 2012, when Republican Mitt Romney scored a 9-plus-point win in Missouri over President Barack Obama.
“Really, Missouri right now looks like a turnout game, which is really kind of the same thing that is going on nationally,” Coker said. “Because neither choice is popular … whoever is more successful in convincing their people that their (candidate) isn’t as bad as the other one” will win.
The closeness of the Missouri race in this poll reflects national polling trends. A Real Clear Politics average of national polls on Wednesday showed Trump at 45.7 percent to Clinton’s 44.6 percent.
“Throw the Romney election out and Missouri has been a pretty good barometer,” Coker said. “We may be back to what Missouri was for 40 years: right there with the winner.”
He pointed out that Romney and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., won by similar margins at the top of the ticket in 2012 and were from different parties.
“The state is not a red, red, red state,” Coker said. “It may be a purple state again as it was 10 years ago.”
Clinton and Trump won their respective party’s March primaries in Missouri by some of the closest margins in history.
In the poll, 45 percent of voters had an unfavorable view of Clinton, while 42 percent had a favorable opinion. Trump’s corresponding numbers were 51 percent unfavorable, 33 percent favorable.
Just under half of white voters supported Trump; nearly one in three supported Clinton, with one in 10 supporting Johnson and a similar percentage undecided. Clinton got the support of virtually all the black respondents.
One significant finding: One in 10 self-identified Republicans favored Johnson, the former governor of New Mexico. One of six independents said they supported Johnson.
Virtually no Democrats said they supported Johnson. Clinton has the support of almost nine of 10 Democrats.
Coker said the Missouri outcome hinges heavily on whether Johnson is included in presidential debates, threatening Trump’s support, and on how many disaffected Democratic supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders either don’t vote or gravitate to Green Party candidate Jill Stein, who barely showed up in his Missouri poll.
“You have the ‘never Trump Republicans’ … looking at Gary Johnson,” Coker said. “Get to the fall and everybody’s perspective changes. If Johnson is not in the debates, then people will think they are wasting their votes. But if he is in the debates and he doesn’t do badly, he might just be able to hold something in the mid-teens or maybe get close to the 20s, if people hate Trump and Clinton then as much as they do now.”
Trump’s strengths are in nonmetro areas across small-town and rural Missouri. He leads Clinton by 2-1 in southwest Missouri, typically a Republican bastion of strength. Clinton has double-digit advantages in the traditionally Democratic Kansas City and St. Louis metro areas.
Clinton is winning voters under 35 decisively, and the two candidates are virtually tied among likely voters between 35 and 64. Trump wins as decisively among Missouri voters over 65 as Clinton does among those under 35.
The question, then, would be whether Clinton can turn out enough younger voters to match older voters, who historically have had higher turnout.
“Fifty and up has increasingly grown Republican, which is different than 15-20 years ago when you still had a lot of old New Deal Democrats around,” Coker said. “They have kind of moved off and now the senior citizens are sort of Reagan voters from the ’90s. We have seen the millennials more socially progressive” and therefore more likely to support Clinton.
The Post-Dispatch poll, conducted between the national political conventions July 23-24, showed a much closer contest than those done earlier this month by KSDK/Survey USA and Public Policy Polling. Both showed a 10-point Trump advantage in Missouri.
Coker’s sample was made up of 35 percent self-identified Democrats, 34 percent Republicans and 31 percent independents. Coker said independents tend to lean Republican in Missouri. Romney won 59 percent of self-identified independents in Missouri in 2012, according to exit polls for the New York Times — the largest percentage of independents won by Romney of 18 states polled.