VOL. 131 | NO. 160 | Thursday, August 11, 2016
View From the Hill
What Would It Take for Trump to Lose Tennessee Voters?
By Sam Stockard
Murfreesboro Realtor Larry Sims almost closes his ears when Donald Trump speaks.
“He gets out of bounds. Of course, the press, they love it because they get to exploit his sayings and doings,” says Sims, who traveled to Cleveland, Ohio, as a Trump delegate for the Republican National Convention.
“But I think his intentions are good. He’s credible. I think they over-emphasize some of the things he says and actions.”
Regardless of what Trumps says, and his words are drawing plenty of fire from Republican Party leaders nationwide, Sims believes the real estate mogul will do the job the nation wants.
Trump is far from an establishment figure, Sim notes, and he could be the right person to bring change to the system, “versus just being a politician.”
Sims’ view of the situation reflects the thoughts of several of Tennessee’s Republican leaders.
Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey acknowledges Trump will say things he doesn’t agree with, even making him “cringe” occasionally. Yet, he says some of it is overblown, and in some cases the media demand a double standard of the Republican candidate.
“If you look at underlying facts that he’s turned out millions of more Republican primary voters than we have in the past and the Democrats are really, really down, I think the enthusiasm is still on the Republican side,” Ramsey says.
What the numbers show
In heavily Republican Tennessee, polls show voters are clearly on Trump’s side. Many of those could be cross-over Democrats and independents disgusted with career politicians, people who feel they’ve been left behind.
Nationwide, though, Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is rolling over Trump, at least right now.
According to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight 2016 election forecast, Clinton held a 91.7 percent chance of winning the presidency, had the election been held on Monday, but only a 5.2 percent chance of carrying Tennessee and winning its 11 electoral votes.
In Silver’s polling, Trump is strongest in the South, Bread Basket and Great Plains states, while Clinton wins the Eastern Seaboard, Midwest and West Coast.
Polling data on RealClearPolitics shows Clinton ahead of Trump by 47.5 to 40.5 percent and winning all 11 polls listed on its website, including ABC News/Washington Post, McClatchy/Marist and Reuters/Ipsos at the end of last week. Even the Fox News poll showed Clinton ahead by 10 points.
Middle Tennessee State University political science professor Kent Syler points out the numbers by Silver are “pretty fluid” and reflect the latest events in the presidential campaign.
Typically, presidential nominees get a “bump” after their own convention because people hear all the good things they have to promise.
On the heels of Clinton’s nominating convention, while she might have gotten the traditional upswing, Trump took a trashing on several fronts, much of it self-inflicted.
He sparred with Khizr and Ghazala Khan, a Gold Star family whose son, an Army captain, lost his life in Iraq. He declined to endorse Republicans such as House Speaker Paul Ryan and Sen. John McCain and continued to criticize the former Vietnam POW. Eventually, he gave them tepid backing, but it was seen as coming late.
In another instance, he went back and forth about a woman whose baby cried in the middle of a speech, first saying it was OK and then seeming to renege, though video shows he appeared to be laughing about the matter.
Baby jokes aside, Trump’s comments about a veteran presenting him with his Purple Heart might stick. Trump said he told the man “that’s big stuff. I’ve always wanted to get the real Purple Heart. This was much easier.”
No doubt, it’s a lot harder to go into battle and get shot or killed than it is to dodge the draft and 45 years later accept a Purple Heart from a real veteran, even if it is a copy. News reports show Trump received five draft deferments during the Vietnam era despite having good health.
That type of flippant attitude toward such an award given to those wounded or killed in combat could haunt him throughout the campaign.
A Tennessee whipping
It certainly caught the attention of Tennessee Republican Caucus Leader Gerald McCormick, an Army veteran who served in the first Gulf War.
McCormick is so irritated with Trump (and Clinton) he calls them the worst presidential candidates since 1856 when Democrat James Buchanan defeated Republican John Fremont and third-party candidate Millard Fillmore, a former president. Buchanan’s presidency set the stage for the Civil War.
A year ago, Trump made derogatory comments about McCain, saying he preferred people who hadn’t been captured to those who’d been prisoners, “which was an insult to POWs,” McCormick says. Then Trump “doubled down” on McCain recently, saying he hadn’t done enough for veterans, McCormick points out.
The weird stuff just keeps piling up.
Add to the McCain bashing Trump’s Purple Heart incident, student deferments and the running battle with the Gold Star family, McCormick says, “those things all together, they got on my nerves.”
Sure, the Khans took the stage at the Democratic National Convention. But McCormick points out they are parents “of a guy who is a hero, who literally gave his life to save the lives of the other guys in his unit.”
McCormick is quick to point out Clinton started her public life as a war protester, going into a recruitment station to embarrass recruiters there. He contends she’s been “disrespectful” of the military since she was young and is “unfit” to command the U.S. armed forces. He certainly won’t vote for her.
“I think she’s a dishonest, terrible person. So this is not a pro-Hillary Clinton thing in any way. But I’m disappointed in Donald Trump,” he adds.
If Democrats had chosen a moderate, pro-business Democrat, someone in the vein of John Glenn, then Republicans would be in trouble, McCormick says. Instead, the Democratic Party has turned into a “quasi-socialist party,” he argues.
“That’s the only saving grace for us is they’re so radically to the left that Tennesseans look at that and say, well, as distasteful as it might be I’m gonna hold my nose and vote for Donald Trump,” says McCormick.
Unless Trump “straightens up,” McCormick adds he’ll skip the presidential box in November.
House Republican Caucus Chairman Glen Casada of Thompson Station in Williamson County echoes those words to a degree, though he’s clearly not as down on Trump as McCormick.
Tennesseans are backing Trump because they’re “tired of being flimflammed” by Washington politicians, Casada says.
“Case in point, Hillary Clinton says she wants to help women, yet Hillary Clinton is the one who suppressed the sexual harassment charges against Bill Clinton. So Hillary Clinton and all D.C. politicians say one thing, but their actions are another,” he says.
“Trump, you may disagree with him, but he is plainspoken and he tells you exactly what he’s gonna do, and he does it. He’s refreshing.”
And while Trump may be struggling with situations such as the argument with the Gold Star family, Casada says Clinton’s list of “sins” is longer than Trump’s. In politics, he says, choose your best option.
Casada laughs when asked if Trump has to convert to Islam or drop the National Rifle Association before Tennesseans will turn away. Instead, he says, Trump’s message of stopping illegal immigration, discontinuing financial support of enemy nations and demanding fair trade with other countries resonates with people here.
“So if he was to abandon those things, that’s how he would lose,” Casada says.
Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris, a Collierville Republican considering a run for governor in two years, calls this “a rambunctious time” politically, one of the first times Americans have seen “this much disaffection.”
Oddly enough, though, Trump’s unfiltered talk appears to be what puts him on top in Tennessee.
“Donald Trump is popular among my constituents because they feel like he speaks truth to power. These people feel as though their voices have not been heard for many years, and although sometimes he’s politically incorrect that’s irrelevant. And it’s a sign of the times we’re in, and I understand it,” Norris explains.
Norris admits Trump is not a perfect candidate. He can’t even recall a perfect candidate. But even though Trump is “brutish” and says things he probably wishes he hadn’t, considering the political, Trump is the “preferred candidate.”
An ABC/Washington Post poll on the Direction of Country shows 71 percent of Americans believe it is on the wrong track. In fact, RealClearPolitics data from seven polls show 65 percent of the nation thinks we’re headed the wrong way.
Considering nearly the same list of polls shows Clinton well ahead of Trump, well, go figure, since Clinton is likely to keep President Obama’s status quo.
More than likely, it means people don’t like Congress, even though in Tennessee we appear to be on the verge of electing the same congressional delegation.
The nation’s political and economic landscape is filled with so many double standards and contradictions, it makes you wonder if people really know what they want. Most people seem to want a fast-food world without the fat and carbs.
Figuring out Tennessee
The Volunteer State took a “hard turn right” politically starting in the 2000 presidential race when former Vice President Al Gore failed to carry his home state against George W. Bush, Syler points out.
2008 turned into a “watershed year” for Republicans here (Obama’s first run), when Tennesseans gave John McCain an even higher percentage than they did President Bush in 2004, Syler adds.
White men without college educations, those who felt the sting of job loss, stagnant wages and industry leaving for foreign companies led the Democratic Party defection to the Republican Party, he says.
“It has trended extremely Republican, as has the South. But Tennessee has been even a little stronger than the rest of the South,” he points out.
In fact, the Silver poll shows Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Virginia voting for Clinton, if the election were held this week.
Syler, a former chief of staff for Democratic U.S. Rep. Bart Gordon, says one of the last polls he did for Gordon in 2009 showed a number of people moving into Rutherford, Sumner and Wilson counties being more conservative than people born here. So while the region was trending conservative already, that influx made it turn red even quicker.
“We are in a very polarized and regionalized political time. And where you live has a whole lot to do with how you vote. It’s almost more about where you live, what color you are, how often you go to church,” Syler says.
“Those factors really have more to do with how you vote than the issues and what candidates talk about.”
Asked what Trump would have to do to make Tennessee turns it back on him, Syler provides this anecdotal evidence: He eats lunch every Tuesday with a Rotary Club group that includes a longtime friend, a World War II veteran and Republican, who says of Trump, “Well, I guess as long as he’s not in jail, I’m gonna vote for him.”
So while many Tennessee Republicans say Clinton should be jailed for her Secretary of State e-mail debacle and perceived failure on Benghazi, they ignore Trump’s weekly sound-bite shortcomings.
Put Sims in the same category.
When he hears all the buzz about the presidential campaign and Trump’s daily battles, he simply says, “Don’t listen to what he says.”
Sam Stockard can be reached at email@example.com.