secret_history (2006-46)

One Last Shot

Some late ruminations about the recent election

by Jack Neely

This year, a little more than half of all Knox County voters cast their votes before election day. Harried pollworkers last Tuesday were complaining that it still wasn’t enough.

But I’m grateful so many people do wait until election day. The fact that they do allows us to explore the fascinating and intricate political geography of Knox County.

On state electoral maps, Knox County is regularly colored in Republican red, but on closer inspection, Knox County is a whole nation in itself. If there are such things as red states and blue states, we have to admit there are also red neighborhoods and blue neighborhoods.

Early voters aren’t recorded by precinct, and don’t help us compare the loyalties and dispositions of various parts of town. Then again, it doesn’t seem as if the popularity of early voting spoils precinct conclusions. The early voting results closely mirror the overall total. The approximately 47 percent who voted on election day would seem to be a reasonably scientific sample of the total who live in their precincts.

Some results are surprising, but some things are consistent, almost invariable. Both suburban and rural parts of the county are almost always commandingly Republican. If you live within five or six miles of a county line, odds are better than 5:1 that you vote Republican.

But the precincts that make up the city of Knoxville, as a whole, tend to go more Democratic. And the closer you get to the core of the city, the oldest parts of the city, the more Democratic you’re likely to vote. If you live in a part of Knoxville that was incorporated before 1961, the best bet is that you vote Democratic. If you live in a part of Knoxville that was incorporated before 1917, even more.

Democratic—not always more liberal. The traditionally black precincts, which tend to be clustered in the old parts of town, account for some of the extreme differences. Black precincts go for the Democrat, and last week they strongly supported a Democrat named Ford. But several of the inner-city precincts also favored the right’s strict-definition-of-marriage amendment.

That anti-gay-marriage amendment, which won overwhelmingly, 81-19 percent, statewide, won in Knox County by an only slightly less punishing 71-29. But despite that big margin, the referendum actually lost in several Knoxville precincts. Some, like Fort Sanders, downtown, and Fourth and Gill, which have always had a bohemian cohort, aren’t surprising. But the marriage amendment also lost about 3-2 in traditionally deep-rooted Republican Sequoyah Hills and, a little farther west, at Bearden Elementary.

Some Knoxvillians are saying, well, duh. The old-line affluent Knoxville Republican tends to be easier on social issues. And if you don’t know a gay Republican, you haven’t lived in Knoxville long.

Meanwhile, the conservative amendment won at the once-liberal University Center, though that precinct did go to Ford.

In some precincts on the outer fringes of Knox County, the anti-gay-marriage amendment was even more popular than it was in the state as a whole—like remote Gap Creek School, where voters favored the amendment almost 10 to 1.

Obviously, people who choose to live outside of city limits may be the sort of people who make a priority of minimizing their tax burden, and to minimize regulations on building, etc., and that sort of person tends to be Republican. Suburbanites also have a practical interest in maximizing the supply of inexpensive oil, whether from wildlife refuges or conquered nations, and that’s an issue more associated with Republicans than Democrats. Also, the Southern Baptist Church, which throughout history has been strongest in rural and suburban areas of Knox County, may account for some of the social conservatism on the outskirts. Still, that’s only a step toward an answer.

Do people live in the suburbs because they’re conservative Republicans? Or do they become conservative Republicans because they live in the suburbs?

Many here and nationally are making assumptions about the real reason Harold Ford didn’t win the Senate seat last week. Ford’s a more energetic, more charismatic, more articulate (by Corker’s own admission) campaigner. He has more experience in the ways of Congress. He was saying more or less the same things Corker was saying. He’s even more overtly religious than Corker, in an ostensibly religious state. But he lost.

Ergo, some assume, he lost because he’s black.

But Corker’s campaign understood something that may have been more powerful than race, or even membership in the Tennessee Republican Party.

They employed it indirectly. In the last weeks of the campaign, Corker ran ads that ended, “I approved this message, because I wanted you to meet m’wife.” Or, in another ad, in which he introduced his daughters, “m’girls.”

The message is simple and, in 2006 Tennessee, powerful: Corker has a wife and kids. Harold Ford doesn’t.

Analysts may say that Corker won because Tennessee is “a Republican state,” or a “conservative state,” etc. But in living memory, Tennessee has elected several Democrats to the Senate, some of them even confessed liberals. It’s been fully six decades since Tennessee has elected a bachelor senator.

Association with a wife or children or both has become a de-facto qualification for high office, maybe moreso now than ever before. Family seemed less important in the days of lifelong bachelor Kenneth McKellar, whose 36 years as U.S. Senator from Tennessee (1916-1952) owed a lot to the Crump machine.

Maybe as a collateral consequence of women’s liberation, the woman in a candidate’s life has come to the front of the stage as never before. Sometimes as policy advisor, as in the case of Hillary Clinton, sometimes as conspicuous spokesperson and campaigner, as in the case of Laura Bush.

In the deep past, a candidate stood on the dais alone. Brochures didn’t describe the man’s family life as if it were a qualification for office. In some cases, wives didn’t even move to Washington when their husband was elected to national office.

Sometimes a candidate’s wife did become well known. But based on my reading of old campaign literature and newspaper accounts of elections, I suspect that before sometime in the mid-20th century, voters didn’t always even know whether the guy was married.

Today, you never see a candidate accepting a nomination without a supportive wife smiling sweetly beside him. If they don’t have their arms around each other, they’re at least close enough to make it clear they’re not only married, but getting along as well as they’re supposed to.