Driving around some rural areas of Tennessee last weekend, I found, in two places almost 200 miles apart, large and conspicuous billboards.
"America or Obama: You Can't Have Both." That's what I could read while driving a car, except one seemed to have some small-print reference to the Tea Party.
If any one president, severely limited in his constitutional authority to begin with, and in this case constrained by a historically uncooperative Congress, is a threat to America, well, that doesn't say much for America.
One thing Republicans and Democrats and Libertarians and Green Partisans can agree on is that we've all survived presidents we don't like, presidents we thought were dangerous idiots who've wasted our money. Maybe that's the foundation for a new dialogue.
Perhaps the billboard is a late response to the notorious 1964 Democratic ad, shown on TV only once, suggesting that a Goldwater presidency might lead to nuclear annihilation. It's a tougher case to make with Obama, because the guy's been our president for four years, half of his constitutional maximum. America is still here, undiminished as near as I can tell.
I do have one complaint about Obama. Has any president since, say, Calvin Coolidge ever passed his first term without ever having visited Knoxville?
Looking through the library files, I don't know for certain about Harry Truman, but I've been told he was here at some point. But every other president has come to Knoxville to make a speech, ride in a parade, attend a high-price fund-raising dinner, something. In our lifetimes, Knoxville has never been so expendable.
That's the other reason the billboard was puzzling. Tennessee billboards for either candidate are a waste of money--for the same reason we haven't seen President Obama here.
Here, persuasion's pointless. It doesn't matter whom any Tennessean votes for on Tuesday, not in deciding who the president is. If you vote for Obama or Romney, or even if you persuade your 10,000 best friends to vote for Obama or Romney, it won't make any difference in the outcome. Though some polls suggest Tennessee may be closer in 2012 than 2008's 15-point spread, it won't be close. Tennessee's a red state, and no sober Democrat I know of is predicting otherwise. And I do know several sober Democrats.
It's only the swing states where votes, or stadium-sized clusters of votes, count.
It's all thanks to our winner-take-all electoral-college system. I suspect that concept must have made more sense to our bewigged founders, a century before scientific polling, when we weren't so certain of how our neighbors are voting. As a result of polling, campaigning has become a surgical process.
Tennessee was a swing state, important to both candidates, for most of the 20th century. It is not today. Neither party's nominee campaigns for the general election in Knoxville. We're considered to be in the bag.
Maybe it's not such a bad thing to be in the bag, even if you think it's the wrong bag. We're spared the noisy, dumb TV commercials both sides are nauseating our swing-state cousins with.
So. There are some close and important local and state races in which your vote might make a difference. Is there any reason at all to vote for anybody at all for president? Maybe, but not to pick a president. This year, voting for president's only a sort of a symbolic thing, just to shift your home state's hue a little.
Tennessee, like all states, isn't red or blue. It's purple. In 2008 it was a purple of 42 percent blue, 57 percent red. TV maps won't show that, Tuesday night. All it takes is a 51 percent majority to make a state red or blue. Tennessee will be pure Alabama red, early in the evening.
But in more sophisticated political maps, which balance blue and red by the proportion voting for each, county by county, Tennessee's much harder to pick out. See princeton.edu. It's sort of a turbulent purple. Democrats can vote just to shift the hue a little, to be more like North Carolina's purple, or Virginia's purple.
Republicans may vote because they admire Alabama's deeper red. Tennessee's already America's 10th most conservative state. Some Republicans might prefer to make it the 9th.
When polled by any number of business journals, CEOs invariably say they like the states with the fewest regulations and lowest taxes. But some executives, especially in the tech and communications industries, say they find it easier to recruit talent to blue states.
Red states, also known a little unkindly as "flyover states," come with some baggage: obesity, prescription drug abuse, high-school dropouts, divorce, murder. Maybe some of our reputation as the modern national ghetto is unfair, and I'm not sure how it started, but being stingy about education while espousing alternative crypto-biological theories about the origins of AIDS or coyotes may not help. Maybe one day Republican Biology will be a thing. In the meantime, regardless of this election's outcome, I hope Republicans can use some of their considerable resources to improve conditions in the states that so loyally support them.
I don't doubt that there might be some business-minded Republicans who admire Romney's tax policies, business sense, and the general cut of his jib, but, considering recruitment of certain kinds of talent—and knowing Tennessee will go their way, anyway—might consider voting for Obama. Just for the purple.
Maybe that's dishonest. Still, for a wealthy businessman who's trying to recruit educated talent, the ideal might be living in a blue state under a red presidency.
In any case, advertising executives certainly wish we were a swing state. By one recent estimate, swing-state Iowa drew $30 million in extra advertising revenues. Much of that money came from fund-raisers in the more predictable red and blue states, like ours. No good Republican can be happy to watch that money flowing away.