VOL. 131 | NO. 33 | Tuesday, February 16, 2016
Democratic Presidential Campaigns Battle for Memphis Voters
By Bill Dries
Former local Democratic Party chairman and Shelby County Commissioner Matt Kuhn got right to the point Saturday, Feb. 13, as the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign opened its Memphis headquarters in the Chickasaw Crossing shopping center.
Bernie Sanders’ local campaign is targeting Democrats who supported Barack Obama over Hillary Clinton in 2008.
(Daily News/Bill Dries)
Former President Bill Clinton campaigned for his wife, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Memphis last week.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
“The first four states of a presidential campaign are retail politics,” Kuhn told the group of 100, referring to the dates on the national political calendar for the Iowa and Nevada caucuses and the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries.
“When we get to Tennessee on March 1, 13 other states have primaries or caucuses and it goes from retail to wholesale real quick,” said Kuhn, who volunteered as a college student in Bill Clinton’s 1992 run for president and worked in Vice President Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign. “We have the power in this state to make this a retail state for Bernie Sanders.”
The pitch and emphasis is a bookend for a similar theme pushed just a few days earlier when former President Bill Clinton spoke to a group of 700 people at Whitehaven High School, urging them to support his wife, former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The Clinton campaign is working to bring in the city’s Democratic base who supported Bill Clinton’s two presidential bids in the 1990s but not Hillary Clinton’s 2008 bid.
During his Whitehaven appearance, Bill Clinton defined that nexus as the economy.
“Without an economy that works for everybody, we can’t be one America and we can’t go forward together,” he said.
At times last week, the former president’s remarks also crossed the line that divided Republican administration from Democratic administration following his tenure in the White House – most notably when he said the government system that should have regulated Wall Street excesses in advance of the Great Recession was “fixed” and remains that way.
He also said the political system is rigged “because you don’t have a president that’s a change-maker.”
That change-maker, Clinton added, would be his wife.
The comments were isolated in remarks that otherwise touted the accomplishments of president Barack Obama’s administration and linked it to the Clinton administration of the 1990s.
As the Memphis speech was underway, Hillary Clinton and Sanders were in Milwaukee, battling in a nationally televised debate for who was the most supportive of and the closest politically to Obama.
During the 2008 campaign, the former president’s remarks criticizing candidate Obama were more sustained and more aggressive.
And when Hillary Clinton campaigned in Memphis at Monumental Baptist Church in advance of the 2008 Tennessee primary, Obama supporters made their presence known in the audience without a confrontation.
Pastor and civil rights veteran Rev. Samuel Billy Kyles acknowledged at the time that the former president’s comments about Obama had damaged the couple’s relationship with black voters locally.
The Sanders campaign is seeking the same group of voters.
It’s a turn away from Sanders’ campaign narrative, in which college-aged voters often involved in retail politics for the first time have been seen as a driving force.
Kuhn’s local team is partnering with Sanders’ traveling staff, who are veterans of the campaign’s efforts in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“A lot of times we are put in a position where you go into a campaign and you have to start from scratch and put something together for a very short period of time,” said Ken Taylor, who is the Memphis director of the Sanders campaign.
Taylor told the crowd at the Memphis headquarters that a local framework for Sanders’ campaign is already in place.
Coleman Thompson, a veteran Democratic political operative and the Democratic nominee for Shelby County Register in each of the last three races for the office, was offered as a representative of Sanders’ local support.
The Sanders and Clinton campaigns are working on a well-established trend across recent election cycles: The younger that voters are, the smaller their percentage among Shelby County voter turnout.
The Shelby County Election Commission has only recently posted voter turnout by age groups and not for the 2008 presidential primaries, which were the last primaries without an incumbent president seeking re-election.
In the 2012 Tennessee presidential primaries, 1.2 percent of the 13.4 percent voter turnout in Shelby County was among voters ages 18-24, while voters ages 25-34 comprised 4.7 percent of the primary turnout. Voters 55 and older accounted for 69.2 percent of the total turnout.
That phenomenon – with the oldest voters comprising the largest percentage of turnout – has been a constant across Shelby County election cycles, regardless of the offices on the ballot or the total voter turnout.
In the citywide Memphis elections of 2015, voters ages 18-24 accounted for 2 percent of the 27.9 percent total turnout. Those 25-34 were 7.2 percent. Voters ages 55 and over accounted for 60.7 percent of the turnout in that election cycle.