In a deeply polarized country, what Ralph Sadberry plans to do on Election Day might make little sense.
The 60-year-old Sears repair technician from Ozark, Mo., calls himself a Republican and is ready to vote for Mitt Romney for president. But then he expects to move across the ballot and vote for a pair of Democrats: Claire McCaskill for the U.S. Senate and Jay Nixon for governor.
Sadberry is a classic ticket-splitter, a tradition with a long history in the Show-Me State. And he says there's nothing the least incongruous about his plans.
"You're looking for the person who's going to represent Missouri the best," he said. "We have to work together across party lines to make this country work."
Based on state polls, Sadberry should have a lot of company. If Romney goes on to beat President Barack Obama by 10 percent next week in Missouri, he'll win by about 300,000 votes if the same number of Missourians turn out as in 2008.
If McCaskill and Nixon are to win, as polls also suggest, that means they'll have to entice at least 150,000 of those Romney voters to swing back to the Democratic side of the ballot. That's a full 5 percent of the electorate. And if Romney carries Missouri by more than 10 points, and if McCaskill and Nixon win with any votes to spare, that percentage of ticket-splitters only rises.
"Missourians," said long-time Democratic operative Roy Temple, "have a pretty strong track record of bouncing around the ballot."
That's how the state wound up with a Republican, John Ashcroft, as governor in 1988 and a Democrat, Mel Carnahan, as lieutenant governor. In 2008, the state easily elected Democrat Jay Nixon as governor and a Republican, Peter Kinder, as lieutenant governor.
"People ... form independent judgments," Temple said.
The gyrations can be enormous. Take that 2008 election. Nixon beat Republican Kenny Hulshof in a landslide with a margin of more than 544,000 votes. Kinder turned around and won a second term as lieutenant governor by 72,529 votes. In 1988, Missouri went big for a pair of Republicans, Jack Danforth for the U.S. Senate and John Ashcroft for governor, by two-to-one margins. But the state also sided with a Democrat, Carnahan, for lieutenant governor by nearly 100,000 votes.
At a labor hall in south Kansas City Thursday night, McCaskill said she's confident that voters will, in fact, jump from Romney to her on Tuesday. In fact, she said voters are sending her text photos of their yards featuring both Romney and McCaskill yard signs.
"I'm in the right state for crossover voting," the senator said. "I am very comfortable and confident that we're gong to have a lot of people going back and forth on the ballot. We always do in Missouri."
A study by American National Election Studies shows that while ticket-splitting has been common over the decades, it actually appears to be declining in this era of intense polarization. For instance, in 1972, fully 25 percent of American voters cast ballots for Republican Richard Nixon for president, and then picked a Democratic member of Congress. In 1980, one-fifth of voters backed Republican Ronald Reagan for president and a Democrat for Congress.
But in 2008, just nine percent of voters opted for Democrat Barack Obama for president and sided with a Republican for Congress while eight percent went with Republican John McCain for president and a Democrat for Congress.
In Missouri, Republicans may have hurt their own cause when they passed a law abolishing single-punch, straight-ticket voting in the midst of the party's decade-long ascendency in the state. The thinking was that the law would hurt Democrats, who had historically been the beneficiaries of straight-ticket ballots.
Analysts say a straight-ticket option this year might have been a boon for Republicans, with Romney leading Obama in the state by 13 points, according to a poll conducted last week for The Star.
Republicans "may regret it," said University of Missouri-Columbia political scientist Peverill Squire of the loss of straight-ticket voting.
Sadberry didn't think twice about his decision to back Romney and then McCaskill and Nixon. He said he's making his calls based on the strengths of the candidates -- and not their party affiliation.
For instance, he's backing McCaskill not because he agrees with her all the time. "The Republican (Akin) is just not stable enough for me," he said. "I am a Republican. But I'm not going to vote for somebody who just can't keep his mind straight with the comments he's made. I know what to expect from McCaskill."
Of Nixon, he said: "I think he's done well. The state's in good position."
Sadberry said he has friends who would never consider voting for a Democrat. "But why vote for a person you really don't know anything about or have confidence in?" he said. "At the end of the day, it's about making the state and the nation better."
Still, a small percentage of voters will be so taken with Romney that they will also vote for other Republicans on the ballot, experts say. Romney's lead appears to be sizable enough in Missouri that the resulting "coattails effect" could draw enough GOP votes to make a difference in close races for secretary of state and state treasurer and even in the less visible races for the General Assembly.
"Every Democrat will fall by two to three points if Romney wins the state by eight to 10 points," said Democratic consultant Steve Glorioso. "It could sink any of the other down-ballot Democrats if their races are close."
Democrats with big leads, such as Nixon, are expected to survive because they are well-funded and stand on their own.
"Campaigns ... can cut their own swath and survive in a hard storm like this," said GOP consultant Jeff Roe of Kansas City. "But when the rafters start blowing that hard, everything could go. They could all go."
McCaskill might be hurting now, too, save for Akin's now famous remarks about "legitimate rape."
"It would hurt her more if she wasn't running against a guy who stuck his foot in his mouth," said long-time Democratic operative Woody Overton.
Veteran state lawmaker Brad Lager knows what it's like to be on the wrong side of a national wave. A Republican, he said he went into Election Day 2008 in a dead heat with his Democratic opponent for state treasurer, Clint Zweifel. He knew the night before the election that he'd probably lose.
"That was the year the electorate was going left," Lager said. "You could just feel it. They (voters) were so frustrated with what the Republicans had done in Congress. They were frustrated with where the country was. They were saying, 'We're going to try a different direction.'
"And they did."