Earlier this month, the National Election Pool, a consortium of news organizations including the major television networks and the Associated Press, announced it would be providing state-level exit polling in only 31 states. Dan Merkle, director of elections for ABC News, told the Washington Post that given rising survey costs, the goal was “to still deliver a quality product in the most important states.”
Tennessee was among the 19 states that failed to meet that standard.
The state, which went blue for Bill Clinton 20 years ago, has become so solidly red that it can hardly attract the attention of Electoral-College-driven presidential campaigns, much less that of national pollsters seeking to suss out the demographic breakdown of the November election. After Tennessee was decided by five points or less in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 presidential elections, it delivered back-to-back landslide victories for Republicans George W. Bush, who beat John Kerry by 14 points in 2004, and John McCain, who took 89 of the state’s 95 counties for a 15-point win in 2008.
Nate Silver, the New York Times political prognosticator who in 2008 correctly predicted the outcome of the presidential race in 49 states as well as the winners of all 35 Senate races, has Romney down as a certain winner in Tennessee this year. (Literally — Silver currently gives him a 100 percent chance of victory.) What little polling has been done in Tennessee suggests Romney’s margin of victory could be smaller than McCain’s, but not small enough that he needs to directly court the oft-referenced undecideds. As long as Republicans know when the polls open and close, it will be enough for him carry the state.
More illustrative of the sagging worth of any individual vote in Tennessee is Silver’s “Return on Investment Index,” which shows “the relative likelihood that an individual voter would determine the Electoral College winner.” Of course, for any voter in any state, that likelihood is incredibly small. But while voters in Nevada and Ohio can boast a rating greater than 10, Tennessee, along with half the other states, is rated less than 0.1.
“In one sense,” agreed Ken Blake, director of the MTSU poll, “it’s kind of hard for any Tennessean right now to think that he or she is gonna have much of an impact on the outcome of the election.”
And so, not surprisingly, Tennesseans haven’t gotten much face time with either candidate for president this time around. Mitt Romney made a brief stop in Knoxville just before the GOP primary in March, and President Barack Obama made a visit to Tennessee in May 2011.
More recently, the candidates’ respective vice presidential nominees have each made one-time appearances, as have their wives — though, as if the point needed clarification, they came to collect donations from big-ticket fundraising events, not with any notion of changing hearts and minds.
Tennessee’s less-than-important electoral status cannot be denied, it seems, even by the state’s own political parties. As the general election campaign has heated up, the Tennessee Republican Party has put out the call for volunteers to call swing voters — in other states.
Just last week, TNGOP party chairman Chris Devaney was celebrating the 10,000 calls into neighboring swing states that volunteers made in a single week, and as this article hits newsstands, Obama for America volunteers from around the state are traveling to North Carolina to register voters and canvass the state.
As far as the race for the White House is concerned, the political reality of the moment — that it’s been more than a decade since Tennessee was “too close to call” — has essentially cut the state’s independent voters out of the electoral process. Undecided voters still have a choice to make in November, it’s just that whatever they decide will be of little consequence to the electoral outcome.
But the Electoral College map isn’t the only one on which Tennessee political observers have already started to do some shading. After 2010, in which Republicans picked up two congressional seats and made dramatic gains in the state legislature, the state is the reddest it’s been in more than a century, and looks to remain that way for some time. Add to that the fact that this year’s vote will be the first election since redistricting — a process that, regardless of which party holds the pen, is carried out with the goal of creating reliable majorities for the party in power wherever possible — and the practical value of the Tennessee ballot, particularly in the hands of an independent voter, seems to shrink further.
Approximately 4 million Tennesseans live in districts where a state House or Senate candidate is running unopposed. They are the constituents in the 48 state House and Senate districts where candidates — 36 Republicans and 12 Democrats — are virtually assured of victory. For those voters, outside a local ballot measure or two, election season ended (for all practical purposes) with the primaries.
For voters elsewhere, in House or Senate districts where at least two candidates are running for a seat, things are only slightly less predictable.
In its first issue after the state legislative primaries in August, a weekly political newsletter edited by veteran Nashville journalist Ed Cromer, listed just 25 of the 67 contested state legislative races as in play — that is, races that could conceivably be close. Of those, only 13 were considered true “toss-ups.”
“There are just very few competitive races across the state,” Vanderbilt political science professor and department chair John Geer told The City Paper. “I don’t think there’s any congressional race that’s very close — I might be surprised, but at this point in time I don’t see it — the Senate race isn’t close, the presidential race isn’t going to be close, and most of the state legislative races — a handful will be competitive.”
Indeed, while it never seemed likely that U.S. Sen. Bob Corker would break a sweat getting re-elected, Tennessee’s only statewide race is especially anti-climactic now, with Corker facing disavowed Democratic candidate Mark Clayton. Most political observers expect Tennessee’s congressional delegation to remain the same, but incumbents in those races will at least be facing candidates the opposition party is willing to claim.
Of the handful of state legislative races that will be competitive, several are in Davidson County. However, those races are less an example of vigorous political competition than they are an effect of expanding Republican strength. After redistricting turned several Democratic strongholds into battlegrounds, three Davidson County Democrats opted not to run for re-election, leaving open seats in House Districts 50 and 53, and in Senate District 20. But if those races are close, as they appear to be, it is only because Republicans are picking a fight where they previously could not.
After all, in either party’s hands, the goal of redistricting is not to increase the need for persuasive arguments and boost the importance of the yet-undecided voter, but rather to cobble together districts in which the majority of people already support a single party. Senate District 20, for instance, was dramatically altered and redrawn as a Republican district. The margin is not large — TNGOP officials told The City Paper in July that they had it down as 53 percent Republican — but if that math is right, and the GOP’s get-out-the-vote machine is running strong, they should win. In District 53, which both parties agree still leans Democratic, the scenario is reversed. There, a strong Democratic turnout should be sufficient to ensure that Jason Powell defeats Republican challenger Ben Claybaker. If enthusiasm for the president is lacking, though, and traditionally Democratic voters stay home, Republicans believe they could pick up the seat.
Despite a few close races, though, the undecided or independent voter, generally thought to be all-powerful during election season, would still appear to be relatively inconsequential in terms of how Tennessee’s political landscape will look after this election season. Even if they don’t deal Democrats the symbolic blow of taking a seat in traditionally blue Davidson County, Republicans seem poised to achieve their primary goal: a two-thirds majority in both chambers that would make Democrats virtually irrelevant to the lawmaking process.
“They’re probably in very good shape, there’s no doubt about it,” Geer said of the Republicans. “And they’re going to pick up seats; we don’t know how many in the state legislature, but they’re going to pick up seats.”
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey made it clear his party had not left that up to the undecideds.
“We have a legitimate shot of picking up six more state Senate seats across the state,” Ramsey told donors at a fundraiser for GOP state Senate candidate Todd Gardenhire, according to the Chattanooga online news outlet Nooga. “It could be 26-7 when we go back. And if you had told me that a few years ago, I would have thought you must be smoking dope or something.”
He continued, “We’ve got an unprecedented opportunity this year. We redrew the lines here in Tennessee. … We un-gerrymandered what the Democrats had done.”
While Ramsey’s phrasing is characteristically unique, he’s not alone in his optimism about the party’s opportunity.
“It’s just a matter of us doing our blocking and tackling and getting out our voters,” said a Republican staffer familiar with the party’s approach to the campaigns. “Making sure that they are engaged enough to the point where they feel like ‘OK, I’m going to go out and make a difference for Romney in Tennessee; we know he’s going to win, but there’s some down-ballot races that my vote is needed.’”
“So long as we do that, so long as we kind of do the Xs and Os,” the staffer said, “we should take the vast majority of races and create a really good supermajority.”
Speaking for the record, TNGOP executive director Adam Nickas was predictably more reserved.
“I would say that is probably the case in a lot of seats that we already have control of,” he said, when asked if a strong turnout among party supporters would be sufficient for Republicans in November.
The seats the party “already [has] control of,” actually represent the overwhelming majority. Nickas went on to note the Davidson County races, where he said the party is trying to reach out to independents and disenchanted Democrats.
Josh Thomas, campaign director for the House Republican Caucus, emphasized that the campaigns the GOP is running in the state are not fueled by red meat alone. Despite what the numbers may suggest, he said the issues GOP candidates are putting at the forefront — jobs, fiscal responsibility, etc. — are priorities for all voters.
When it comes to the math of the campaign, he said Republicans’ ability to simply rely on their base depends on the region. While many East Tennessee districts are solidly Republican, he said, many in West Tennessee are a lighter shade of red, if not blue. Nevertheless, he acknowledged the Republican advantage.
“When it comes to our base versus their base, I’d rather be us than them,” he said.
Nickas said the party is telling its candidates not to take that for granted.
“We tell our candidates, you can’t expect just to put an ‘R’ beside your name and expect to win,” he said.
But despite Nickas’ guarded statement, that “R” might very well make all the difference.
“For the most part, legislative races are going to be decided by partisanship,” Geer said. “I mean, a sizable number of people aren’t going to even know who their representatives are at the state legislative race, but they’re going to vote Republican or Democratic depending on their leanings, and so most of the undecideds — they need to just turn out the base is right, but the state’s especially conservative, and the so-called independents are often people who vote consistently Republican anyways.”
The October Surprise, an unexpected event that threatens to turn campaigns on their heads just before an election, has a rich tradition in American politics. So rich, in fact, that any article making sweeping statements about electoral outcomes just about requires an asterisk of sorts. In the weeks or even days leading up to an election, surprises as big as a foreign policy crisis — like the Iran hostage crisis in 1980 — or as seemingly small as an uncovered run-in with the law — like the late-breaking confirmation in 2000 that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunken driving in his younger years — can take all your conventional wisdom and turn it into foolishness ... or not. You really never know.
As it happens, this week’s cover story was being filed just as revelations about U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais were hitting the fan. A Huffington Post report last week cited a transcript of a phone call between DesJarlais, then a practicing doctor, and his mistress, who had been a patient of his. In the transcript, DesJarlais urges the woman to get an abortion. The Huffington Post reported that when presented with the transcript, DesJarlais did not deny its contents. One finds it hard to imagine the scandal won’t have some effect on DesJarlais’ candidacy and his race against state Sen. Eric Stewart in the 4th Congressional District.
All that is to say this discussion of the state and presidential races is based on the candidates’ current status, their constituencies’ current makeup, and the current political climate in the state. Should any of that change, some of this will.