secrethistory (2008-07)

The Broad Brush

Secret History

Assessments of Tennesseeâ’s voting patterns mask deeper textures

by Jack Neely

Iâ’m always impressed with the generous breadth of the brush used by election-return commentators, especially when theyâ’re slathering thick paint over my home state. A candidate gets 34 percent of the Republican vote, which is about 47 percent of the total vote, and they say â“Huckabee swept Tennessee,â” or â“won convincingly.â” Moreover, from a booth in Washington or New York, these well-coifed pundits seem pretty sure they know why.

Last Tuesday night, one pundit after another used the word â“evangelicalâ” to describe Tennessee, and the South at large. Mike Huckabee is evangelical. Tennessee is evangelical. Quod erat demonstrandum.

And although I didnâ’t hear them use the word â“racist,â” it was pointed out, repeatedly, that white Southerners are much less likely to vote for Barack Obama.

I prefer stereotypes about other parts of the country. You could also argue that regionalism played a big roleâ"Sen. Hillary Clinton, who lived very prominently in the next state over for 20 years, is much better known. Likewise with Huckabee, who was elected governor of Arkansas 12 years ago. But even that more benign suggestion has the effect of slopping on the paint again.

Tennessee looks different, and much more interesting, up close; if you can scrape the broad-brush paint off, thereâ’s a lot of curious detail.

Huckabee won the stateâ’s Republican race, but not every part of it. In the state capital, Huckabee was a distant third. In seven counties around Nashville, Romney, the doomed conservative from Massachusetts, beat both John McCain and Huckabee. I donâ’t know whatâ’s up with that.

Thereâ’s such political diversity within Knox County that you can find a Knox County precinct that, in its voting patterns, is a miniature version of any state in the nationâ"except, in this case, for those 11 states that went for Romney. No Knox County precinct supported the Nashville-area favorite. In one case, the Dante section of northwest Knox, Romney came in fourth, behind Ron Paul.

In Knox County, the winner, by a three-point margin, was McCain. Even though Knox County ranks a distant third among Tennesseeâ’s most populous counties, more people voted for McCain in Knox than in any other county in the state. He was also the top GOP vote-collector in Jefferson, Loudon, Hamblen, Sevier, and several other East Tennessee counties. The only county in the traditional Knoxville metro area that Huckabee won by a substantial margin was Blount. Thatâ’s likely why, early that evening, McCain seemed to be carrying the state: his Tennessee strength was in the Eastern Standard Time zone.

The traditionally Republican part of the stateâ"that is, the part of the state thatâ’s been Republican since the Civil Warâ"liked McCain. You wonder if, as the pundits of the New Right denounce McCain as a dangerous freak, the same man strikes East Tennessee Republicans as the closest thing to an old-fashioned Republican.

The parts of the state that had been Democratic since the Confederacy, and which turned Republican during the Reagan Revolution of 1980, favored Huckabee or, around Nashville, Romney. Is the pro-Huckabee map the 1860 Secession map? Historical geography still makes its obscure points now and then.

Knox County voters did come out in force that day. We were also Fred Thompsonâ’s biggest vote factory. Almost 2,000 voted for Thompson here, as if to prove weâ’re not prejudiced against a candidate just because he dropped out of the race.

Knox County was also the statewide leader in total votes for the crypto-libertarian Ron Paul, who had volunteers pushing his candidacy at the farmersâ’ market as early as last summer. Of all the Tennessee votes cast for Paul, one in nine came from Knox County. A total of 3,430 Knox County voters liked Paulâ’s message enough to look past McCain, Huckabee, and Romneyâ"and the whole Democratic fieldâ"to throw a vote at Paulâ’s long-shot candidacy.

Though more than 30,000 Tennesseans voted for John Edwards, who dropped out the week before Election Day, the Democratic race was really a two-way split. Clinton won almost the entire stateâ"but eight counties went for Obama. Five of them are in the Memphis-Jackson region, the stateâ’s highest concentration of black citizens. Two of the others were urban counties containing Nashville and Chattanooga, which also have large black populations. The eighth Obama county is an interesting exception in that pattern: itâ’s wealthy Williamson County, south of Nashville, demographically even whiter than Knox County is. They like Obama.

But there are more than twice as many Obama supporters in Knox than in Williamson, and more Obama supporters in Knox County than in four of those pro-Obama West Tennessee counties combined.

The Democratic race in Knox County rendered one of the closest splits in the state, 44-49 percent. Clinton was the winner, but Obama supporters proved what most of us already knew, that yes, a lot of Southern whites may well vote for a black candidate. Obama won several Knox County precincts, including Sequoyah Hills.

It may be, in part, the Obama candidacy that accounts for some of the high Democratic turnout here. Knox is a famously Republican county, and in this election in particular, most of the high-profile county races were between Republicans; choosing to vote in the Democratic primary, in most Knox County districts, meant forfeiting the right to have much of a say in local government. Still, 38,000 Knox votersâ"about 42 percent of the totalâ"voted Democratic anyway.

With only 16 percent of the total votes cast last Tuesday, did Huckabee really sweep Tennessee? Obama, the second-place Democrat, got more than 60,000 more votes, statewide, than Huckabee did. For whatever itâ’s worth, Obama also outpolled Huckabee in Knox County.

I donâ’t know what it all means. Just that if you have a dog in this presidential race, left or right, active or defunct, youâ’ve got a lot of company here. Donâ’t let anybody, regardless of their haircut, convince you otherwise.


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