yesterday's post proposing two Tennessees
, I noticed one lone blue outpost in the East Tennessee portion—Jackson County. Out of five blue counties in the state, Memphis and the surrounding area accounted for three, Nashville's Davidson made four, and little Jackson County (pop. 10,984) on the Cumberland Plateau made five.
Billy Smith, manager of Congressman Bart Gordon's Cookeville office and a Gordon field rep for 20-plus years, was born in Jackson County, which is just north of Cookeville's Putnam County. “It's been Democratic as long as I can remember,” Smith says. “They're a highly independent people. They do their own thinking. They don't ask anyone else how to vote. Historically, Jackson County is one of biggest Democratic strongholds in Tennessee.”
But what's really curious, as Smith went on to point out, is that several surrounding and nearby counties—Clay, Overton, Smith and Trousdale—are also traditionally Democratic. Yet all four went strongly for McCain.
A comparison of 2004 and 2008 results was jaw-dropping. Here are the Democratic vote tallies for these counties, in percentage points, for the 2004 (Kerry/Bush) and 2008 (Obama/McCain) elections:
Clay: Kerry 50, Obama 42
Overton: Kerry 53, Obama 42
Smith: Kerry 52, Obama 39 (!)
Trousdale: Kerry 58, Obama 46
When you consider the fact that nationwide, Obama was a significantly more popular candidate than Kerry, those figures are even more eyebrow-raising. And Gore had anywhere from 6 to 15 percent more votes than Kerry
, which is even more confounding. Granted, Tennessee was Gore's home state, but still he averaged roughly 20 percentage points higher
than Obama throughout this region—even in Jackson County, where Obama won with 50 percent, Kerry had 60, and Gore 70.
So was race a major factor, as the numbers would seem to indicate?
Jackson County Mayor Charlie Hix thinks so. “In Jackson, it used to be two-thirds would vote Democrat,” Hix says. “We've had some new people move in and that's part of where the Republicans come in. And then some didn't want to vote for a black.”
So, although it didn't work in Pennsylvania, maybe the McCain strategy—that he might be able to get white, rural, blue-collar Democrats who would be hesitant to vote for a black man—wasn't so ill-founded. After all, it's hard to read these numbers and not conclude that a good portion of America is still wary of a black president.
Finally, we see the role that race played in the presidential election, at least in the South. But wait a minute.
As Hix was quick to point, Harold Ford did exceptionally well in this region in the 2006 Senate race, an election that he ultimately lost. He far outperformed Obama in Jackson (64 percent to Obama's 50), Clay (57 to 42), Overton (59 to 42), Smith (57 to 39) and Trousdale (64 to 46).
So what can we learn from these numbers? They would seem to suggest that Obama didn't do poorly in these counties solely because he's black. After all, Ford is black—even if he had the benefit of name recognition. (If having the same name as Harold Ford Sr. and John Ford can be considered a benefit.)
Then again, Ford is, by Democratic standards, fairly conservative, even claiming to be pro-life during his Senate run, though conservatives claimed his abortion stance was political gamesmanship. So maybe it's that Obama is too liberal. But that doesn't hold water either—after all, for years John Kerry has been the liberal whipping boy for conservatives, and he performed very strongly in this part of Tennessee.
So what was Obama's downfall in these parts? Best we can tell, it's that he was black and
liberal—a double-whammy that might have been too much to swallow for some folks. At least that's the only logical conclusion I can squeeze around those facts, so I'm sticking with it.
Or could it be that Kerry spent far more time campaigning in Tennessee than Obama did?
Or was it that whole funny-Arab-name thing?
And what about the fact that both Davidson and Shelby counties, which have far higher black populations than the rest of the state's counties, were much stronger for Obama than Kerry—5 and 6 percent, respectively? Does that suggest that blacks were more hesitant to vote for a white candidate? Or is it simply that more blacks were motivated to vote at all?
Sorry, but I'm parked on a meter—I'll have to get back to you on that one.
As I did research for