US elections: The view from Tennessee

Memphis, Tennessee: The state will stay red on Tuesday
Memphis, Tennessee: The state will stay red on Tuesday

politics.co.uk's Matt West reports on the views of Tennesseans as the US prepares to vote on Tuesday.

Tennessee is a state slightly at odds with itself. It has a Democratic governor and yet will almost undoubtedly vote overwhelmingly Republican in the upcoming presidential and congressional elections on Tuesday.

This doesn't appear to make a great deal of sense but to a degree nothing in this state in the heart of the Deep South makes a lot of sense politically.

This is the heart of the Bible belt, a state in which people are deeply religious and deeply Republican. Being a Democrat is, in itself, somewhat unusual.


To give a flavour of just how Republican the state is one local Tennessean I speak to in Chattanooga, Robert, tells me he has already voted for Republican presidential candidate John McCain but that he's not happy about it. For him McCain is too liberal! He'd rather see Sarah Palin running for president. She's not as liberal as McCain; and secondly, he explains, she's not been tainted by the political machine in Washington.

Despite the fact many believe the race is already won by Obama, something he is terrified will keep people away from the polls on Tuesday, Robert also appears quite confident that McCain may still pull off what most now believe is an impossible victory.

Yet, and here's the dichotomy of the situation, Robert readily admits that he voted for the current Democratic governor of Tennessee, Phil Bredesen. He even says he would be sorry to see the governor, a former surgeon, go, if as rumoured he would leave office to join the cabinet of a president Barack Obama as secretary of health.

To some extent this is the nature of US politics. On a local level, say gubernatorial elections or local state legislatures, people in Tennessee are quite happy to give consideration to both sides of the debate and to vote for whoever they think will do the best job for the state. But on a national level, as Robert tells me, if the candidate's name has an R next to it, that's who he votes for, no questions asked. He even tells me both his parents were "educated, bleeding heart liberals" only half jokingly.

What is remarkable about this election as well is that early voting has rocketed. The Chattanooga Times Free Press has reported in recent days that, state-wide, early voting has increased by almost half a million voters in this election.

Moreover, this accounts for roughly half of all registered voters in the state.
Unfortunately this gives no indication as to which candidate is ahead but it's a safe bet Tennessee will go Republican red on Tuesday night.

The trend in early voting in Tennessee is being repeated nationally. Early voting has broken records in 30 US states, 23 million votes have already been cast already and people are queuing for three or four hours to cast there votes early. But many are still too close to call. Florida in particular appears to have the candidates in a neck and neck race to the point that Hilary Clinton spent yesterday campaigning for her old rival in order to try and help him gain some advantage. Meanwhile, this is also a young person's election. Voter registrations among the 18- to 24-year-old age bracket are through the roof, there's been little need for the usual "Rock the Vote" campaigns of previous years and young voters are expected to account for about a third of all votes cast in this election.

It's also unlikely that Barack Obama or John McCain will visit the state in the next couple of days. There is no need for either candidate to do so. John McCain knows the state will turn red and Obama knows he doesn't stand a chance here. As another local, Shelda, tells me: "This state has had three presidents and could have had a fourth but Al Gore never came here".

Essentially she says the only chance the Democrats had to take Tennessee was eight years ago when native - in that he was born there - vice-president and presidential candidate Gore failed to come to the state. Many Tennesseans saw that as arrogant, according to Shelda. They wanted him to come to the state, seeing as he essentially grew up in Virginia only visiting his home state in the school breaks. The fact that he didn't, to many, was evidence that he simply expected the state to vote for him.

The race still hinges on four states, Virginia, Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. Some have said North Carolina and Nevada as well. But, and this is one of those moments when the phrase "only in America" really comes into its own, in Ohio things have become so desperate and tight that a recent election law allowing the homeless to register to vote was passed by the state legislature. Those living on the streets in the state are quite literally allowed to nominate a park bench as their residence in order to vote. Ohio still remains the state to watch.

Meanwhile, one of the most interesting things to have begun to appear, something which will no doubt please Robert immensely, are "Palin 2012" badges as worn by a local young Republican from Georgia called Megan. Rumours that Sarah Palin and John McCain have failed to get along and that the two running mates have begun blaming each other for a defeat that has not yet been inflicted have been rife in the last week. But what is new is that Palin is apparently gearing up for a run for the presidency in 2012 and her fundraising ability could yet match that of Barack Obama''s this year. No doubt Robert and the rest of the state of Tennessee would vote for her.

The race between the candidates shows little sign of narrowing in the last days if the polls are to be believed, but no one is taking the result for granted. If we have heard the last of John McCain, however, we might not have heard the last of Sarah Palin just yet. And it's difficult to escape the feeling that the US is moving towards a new generation of politicians.

Matt West

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