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VOL. 122 | NO. 155 | Friday, August 17, 2007

Repubs and Dems Fix On Feb. 5 as State Primary Date

By Bill Dries

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The leaders of the Tennessee Republican and Democratic parties don't agree on much when it comes to who should lead the country when George W. Bush leaves the White House.

But they do agree that Feb. 5 is the right time for the Tennessee primaries even as South Carolina officials earlier this month moved up that state's primaries by 10 days to Jan. 19.

"We're highly relevant," Democratic chairman Gray Sasser said of the positioning of the Tennessee primaries even with the new South Carolina date.

Sasser and Republican chairman Robin T. Smith each expressed concern that holding the Tennessee primaries any earlier would harm voter turnout in what is historically a low turnout contest.

Early voting in advance of the Tennessee primaries will be in late January.

"Politics - sometimes it turns into a game," Smith said. "But I do think in this particular instance, because the Christmas holidays are just weeks away and because here in Tennessee we have such a successful turnout in early voting, we're putting ourselves in a position that we would negate the opportunity for good turnout ... if we moved the primary any earlier."

How to entice?

"Good turnout" is a relative term because like local and state primaries on a ballot with no general elections, the turnout in Shelby County tends to be low. The irony is that the presidential general election in November historically and consistently generates the highest turnout - 60 percent to 75 percent - of any election cycle in Shelby County.
In the nine pairs of Tennessee primaries that have been held since 1972, when both national parties went to the series of elections and caucuses, the primary date has moved from May to March to the second week in February and now to the first week in February.

The Feb. 10, 2004, turnout drew a 10 percent voter turnout in Shelby County and around 11 percent statewide, according to Shelby County Election Commission figures. Early voting in advance of election day began two days after the Iowa caucuses and a week before the New Hampshire primaries.More than 20 percent of the primary votes in Shelby County were cast during the early voting period.

The highest presidential primary turnout in Shelby County was the 37 percent turnout for the May 4, 1972, primaries. Second highest was the nearly 30 percent turnout in 1988, the first to be held in March. Since then turnout has declined locally.

Statewide, the 1972 and 1988 primaries were also the high point in turnout, each generating a 33 percent turnout of registered voters.

'Super Duper'

The Tennessee primary is one of several on Feb. 5. The combination of contests in several states has been nicknamed "Tsunami Tuesday" and "Super Duper Tuesday." Tennessee was among the original Super Tuesday states in 1988 when the primaries in several Southern states were clustered on the same day to give those states more of a voice.

The voice wound up saying several different things as Democratic contenders Al Gore, Jesse Jackson and the eventual Presidential Nominee Michael Dukakis all walked away with a reason to claim victory.

Sasser blamed South Carolina Republican leaders for ditching the bipartisan cooperation he and Smith say has worked in Tennessee's quest to remain relevant in the primary process.

"It's got to be a bipartisan effort," he said. "It's critically important that when we're talking about these big issues that making sure everybody's voice counts in the process - that that transcends Democratic and Republican politics."

Smith declined to assign blame to one party or the other in South Carolina.

"If we keep showboating and moving up and moving around it's going to have an effect on the turnout," she said. "This particular presidential election cycle has been anything but traditional."

Beefing up the numbers

Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander has raised the idea of instating some congressional oversight of setting primary dates, a process that is now up to individual states.

In a bill filed just before the August recess, Alexander along with Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota proposed a series of four regional clusters of primaries and caucuses held on the first Tuesday of each month over a four-month period starting in March. Iowa and New Hampshire would not be included and would still be the first in the process. A different region would go first every four years and the new process would begin with the 2012 Presidential contest.

"States racing to schedule early contests have made the nomination process too long and expensive," Alexander said in a written statement. "Our legislation will increase the pool of good candidates willing to run for the White House and give more Americans the opportunity to hear their ideas and to cast a meaningful vote."

Alexander and Lieberman have had some experience with the process. Alexander was a contender for the GOP nomination in 1996 and 2000. Lieberman was the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000, and sought the presidential nod in 2004.

Sasser and Smith were cautious about the idea of congressional intervention.

"There would be some concerns about taking away the power of the states to set the primary dates," Sasser said in general terms. "I would hope states could retain the ability to set the primary schedule. After we get through with this, I think we definitely need to look at some changes, tweaking it or examining it."

If embraced by all states, Smith said the regional rotation "might be beneficial."

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