It has been 12 years since Shelby County voters have encountered a Democratic or Republican presidential nominee on the general election ballot who had some kind of political presence in the region, if not the city, before they made their bid for president.
In that time, Democratic and Republican states have been reclassified as blue or red, respectively. But with Tennessee solidly Republican, Shelby County is a blue dot in a sea of red.
And no one on either side of the partisan divide locally expects that to change in the 2012 presidential general election.
Early voting in advance of the Nov. 6 Election Day begins Wednesday, Oct. 17, in Shelby County, but each side still has its job to do here.
Volunteers Sierra Ellis, from left, Herschel Wells and wife Mary Wells make calls to voters at the West Tennessee Democratic
Resource Center. Because Tennessee is not considered a swing state, many calls are going to voters in battleground states. (Photos: Lance Murphey)
The candidate recruitment committee meets at Shelby County Republican Campaign Headquarters. Republican party chairman
Justin Joy acknowledged that Tennessee is a “very solid red state,” but that hasn’t stopped supporters from campaigning. (Photos: Lance Murphey)
And that job is as outsourced political labor and fundraising to fuel the Mitt Romney and Barack Obama campaigns in other states.
“We all know that Tennessee is not a swing state. More than likely he won’t carry Tennessee,” Shelby County Democratic party chairman Van Turner said of President Barack Obama.
“What we’re asking the local Democrats to do is to make calls and assist in efforts where the margins are close but he can win. The primary ask from the state (campaign) to us has been to make calls and do what we can to assist in North Carolina.”
A tweet from @TNGOP on the same day that Republican Vice Presidential nominee Paul Ryan raised $1 million at a September fundraiser at the Racquet Club of Memphis asked, “Did you know you can help Romney-Ryan win in swing states without leaving TN?”
Ryan raised that million dollars in a campaign event that lasted less than an hour.
“The people here in Shelby County and across Tennessee are contributing time and money to efforts that are taking place in some of the so-called battleground states,” said Shelby County Republican party chairman Justin Joy. “That’s where I think both campaigns realize the presidential contest will be decided.”
“We all know that Tennessee is not a swing state. More than likely he (Obama) won’t carry Tennessee. What we’re asking the local Democrats to do is to make calls and assist in efforts where the margins are close but he can win. The primary ask from the state (campaign) to us has been to make calls and do what we can to assist in North Carolina.”
– Van Turner
Shelby County Democratic party chairman
That was also the case four years ago for local Democrats and Republicans.
But it is the race at the top of the ballot that makes the presidential general election cycle the most popular in terms of voter turnout – ranging from 60 percent to 75 percent turnout in Shelby County.
It is the only election cycle in Shelby County in which more than half of the county’s voters have turned out consistently every four years – both before and since 2000 when the turned red as George W. Bush beat former U.S. Senator Al Gore in his home state.
Today’s campaign stops are briefer and often involve either fundraisers closed to the public or stops that are very brief appearances without a pitch to voters.
Memphis has been a popular destination for visits from politicians, however, even if the trips weren’t political in nature.
Michelle Obama came through in June for a closed fundraiser the day the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act.
In May 2011, President Obama spoke at the Booker T. Washington High School graduation, his first appearance in the city since 2006 when he campaigned for Harold Ford Jr.
Earlier this year, Rick Santorum made two stops at Memphis churches – Bellevue Baptist Church and nearby St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Church – on a Sunday but didn’t speak at either one.
He was repeating a journey made four years earlier by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, an ordained minister, who spoke at an installation ceremony for two ministers at Bellevue Baptist and then talked politics with reporters during a quick stop at Corky’s Barbecue on his way to other stops.
The swift moves through Memphis are an indication that Tennessee hasn’t been a swing state for several presidential elections. And the much smaller turnout in the earlier presidential primaries may be a different kind of voter.
“I think there is certainly a sense of a very strong desire of change in this election too, specifically in terms of changing who the current president is. We are a very solid red state. I think it’s fair to say that both campaigns have recognized that. I think that goes to efforts being made from Tennessee in terms of time and effort and money.”
– Justin Joy
Shelby County Republican party chairman
Santorum and Huckabee carried Shelby County and the state in the GOP primary in 2008 and 2012. Neither was the Republican nominee. In 2008, Obama carried Shelby County while then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton carried the state in the Democratic primary.
In four years, Joy said local sentiment has changed. It’s not necessarily enough change that Romney will carry Shelby County. But Joy expects more of a local Republican response to the prospect of unseating an incumbent Democratic president.
“I think there is certainly a sense of a very strong desire of change in this election too, specifically in terms of changing who the current president is,” Joy said. “We are a very solid red state. I think it’s fair to say that both campaigns have recognized that. I think that goes to efforts being made from Tennessee in terms of time and effort and money.”
The race is different from 2008, Turner countered, because it has an incumbent who brought new voters to the process.
“I’ve seen younger people become more engaged,” he said. “I think he inspired a whole generation of persons who may not have been interested in the political process to get involved, to get engaged and to try to make a difference.”
Local Races Enliven
Nov. 6 Election Day
The presidential race at the top of Nov. 6 ballot is what brings local voters to the most popular election cycle in terms of voter turnout in Shelby County.
But the rest of the ballot confirms 2012’s status as a local election year in which the candidates have to share the spotlight with ballot questions.
The Nov. 6 ballot is a bit brighter spotlight for candidates than the Aug. 2 ballot.
November’s ballot includes six sets of school board races for the municipal school districts being formed by each of Shelby County’s six suburban towns and cities.
With those races decided, the new school boards would take office immediately with goals of appointing superintendents for their new school systems by the end of 2012.
In Millington all five school board races are one candidate affairs decided at the filing deadline.
Millington’s move to municipal schools was in jeopardy when the certified vote count from August showed the sales tax hike to fund the schools lost by three votes. But this month Chancellor Arnold Goldin ordered the vote count changed to show the measure passed.
Millington leaders and the Shelby County Election Commission agreed to the new vote count after the city of Millington filed suit to contest the results. That means no second vote on the issue in Millington after November. And Millington votes on the countywide sales tax hike will not be counted.
Passage of the countywide half-cent tax increase will be decided by voters in Memphis and unincorporated Shelby County. It would mean less revenue for Millington, Bartlett, Germantown and Collierville, which approved tax hikes in August. It would mean more revenue for Lakeland and Arlington, which also approved their own tax hikes in August.
Away from the polling places, there is still the federal court case over the state laws that are the ground rules for establishing municipal school districts. The County Commission’s challenge of the constitutionality of the laws passed in 2011 and 2012 is pending before U.S. District Court Judge Samuel “Hardy” Mays with no specific time set for a ruling on the state constitutional issues. The federal issues are to be heard by Mays in January.
Meanwhile, Memphis voters will decide the fate of a penny-a-gallon local gasoline tax. The Memphis City Council approved in August the ballot question that would raise tax revenue – estimated at $3 million to $6 million a year – for the Memphis Area Transit Authority.
– Bill Dries
Turner also adds the Obama campaign of 2008 changed the mechanics of elections for both parties.
“A post-’08 election has to have within the campaign tools a Facebook page,” he said. “You have to have a Twitter page. You have to be on LinkedIn. I think it’s just a must now. You are reaching a whole new group of potential voters when you do that.”
Yet those on the social media tools for both campaigns have, at times, taken to their own personal accounts to vent some frustration and to question traditional tactics like phone banking and voter registration in a county where historically voter registration levels have been high even when voter turnout is low. Several tweets have wondered whether phone banking really works any more, especially when it is to out-of-state voters.
The Tennessee Democratic Party sent Zack Brown to Memphis by this summer to work on a goal of registering 20,000 new voters in Shelby County.
“We have so far pursued, I would say, younger voters,” Brown said in August at the start of the break between the August and November elections. “But it’s not out of any preference other than a pragmatic one. It’s easier to reach larger groups of young people. … The older individuals … it’s harder to find the same concentration.”
So Brown has coordinated voter registration tables at health fairs and other civic events just as his Republican counterparts – some also sent by party leaders in Nashville – have done the same at community festivals and other civic events.
Although Shelby County is home to the largest bases for each of the state’s two major political parties – the Democratic base within Memphis and the Republican base in the county outside Memphis – the value of the bases has changed even if the trappings of the campaign remain the same.