The Shelby County Election Outlook

Shelby County has two more elections this year (hopefully) and after the dismal turnout in the May 5th election, and voter fatigue in general, how Big Shelby turns out in August and November could have a huge impact on the future of the state.

I understand that most folks don’t care much about the party process or primaries in general. General elections in Shelby County typically turn out 3 times more voters than primaries.

The upcoming primary for state and federal office August 5th is likely to be an exception to the rule on low turnout primaries. The big race is between Cohen and Herenton, with Shelby County Mayor’s race falling a distant second. The Cohen/Herenton match-up is dominating local media, with the down ballot races as filler. Chances are turnout will be as big as some past general elections, particularly since this IS effectively the general election for the top 3 races. Whoever wins the 9th district Democratic Primary will be the next Congressman from Memphis.

Which brings me to a thought that I’ve been kicking around for some time. What happens here in Shelby County in November? As John Branston noted back in May, we’ve been electioned to death in Shelby County, and with Governor’s race being the only real race of consequence in November, turnout is a big question mark.

In the 2006 election some 280,000 Shelby County voters participated. In 2008, the number was around 404,000. The difference between those two elections and the upcoming 2010 election is who was on the ballot. In 2006, Memphis’ own Harold Ford Jr. was running for Senate. In 2008 it was a Presidential year that led to the election of the nation’s first African-American President. Since 1998 Gubernatorial elections have turned out around 100,000 fewer voters in Shelby County than Presidential elections.

No one expects a repeat of the huge turnout we saw in 2008. The question is whether or not we’ll even rise to 2006 levels or not.

The last Gubernatorial election that didn’t have another statewide or Presidential race on the ballot was 1998. That year only 158,000 voters in Shelby County voted. What’s interesting is that the number of active registered voters in Shelby County is relatively unchanged since 1998.

John Jay Hooker’s low budget campaign had a lot to do with the depressed turnout in 1998, but my point still stands: turnout is lower in Gubernatorial years, even lower when there’s not another race to spark interest, and even lower when the electorate has had an election every time they turn around.

Shelby County consistently delivers over 60% of it’s vote to the Democratic candidate. So winning Shelby isn’t that big of a deal. How BIG you win in Shelby, however, could be a big deal. There are basically 100,000-150,000 votes in play here. For Democratic candidates, these aren’t votes you necessarily have to win, these are votes you have to turn out. Looking back at the 2002 Gubernatorial election, the margin of victory was about 50,000 votes, but if you back out the Shelby and Davidson County numbers, you see that they erased a statewide deficit of over 16,000 votes to lead Phil Bredesen to a decisive victory.

That may not happen if the electorate isn’t excited about the campaign, and I can tell you, they aren’t right now.

There’s a growing feeling in Shelby County that we’re being taken for granted. That feeling was expressed recently by News Channel 3 reporter Mike Matthews.

In a series of tweets to his 800 followers, mostly Memphians, the veteran reporter made some observations that have had political observers talking for the last couple of days.

I wonder if Democrat candidate for mayor Mike McWherter is planning on visiting Memphis anytime soon. I know he’s unopposed, but hey…(Source)

McWherter not coming to Memphis, Ramsey’s not mentioning Memphis in his speech, indicatiions are some use Memphis for votes and little else.(Source)

Say what you want, but Haslam has been to Memphis a lot, and Zach Wamp mentions how important Memphis is in other sections of the state.(Source)

And finally, in response to one of his followers…

@Querb He was here 3 months ago, huh? Wasn’t Jim Kyle still in the race 3 months ago? He’ll show up after the primary, looking for votes.(Source)

The problem isn’t that we have a bad candidate or that we don’t have a primary. The problem is that we’re only hearing from the people we don’t want to vote for (Haslam and Wamp primarily) and we just want to know our guy is in the game and interested in the future of Shelby County.

For a lot longer than 8 years Big Shelby has felt like the red-headed stepchild of Tennessee politics. There is not another county like us in the state. We are unique, and because of that uniqueness, we feel we get treated differently, and not a good kind of different.

14% of the state’s population lives in Shelby County, but 25% of that population is poor. Over the past 30 years we’ve seen a hollowing out of our city’s core, and very little of anything in the way of economic development outside of the usual suspects that dominate our employment base. We keep hearing we’re on our way to be the Detroit of the south, but we don’t hear much of anything in the way of solutions from local leaders or help from the powers that be in Nashville. This feeling is only compounded by the situation that is currently surrounding The MED.

We feel ignored, but we’re not unique in that feeling. All across West Tennessee cities and counties feel ignored by Nashville. While huge strides have been made in population growth and economic development in East and Middle Tennessee, West Tennessee feels like it’s been left to wither on the vine by folks that just don’t understand us.

The difference between Shelby and the other 20 counties in West Tennessee is the potential of our political impact. No Democrat in a statewide election can win without us. That’s the reality. But we have to be inspired to show up to deliver the votes, and that’s just not happening right now. Add that to the voter fatigue and general sense of malaise and it spells disaster for Democratic Gubernatorial Candidate, Mike McWherter. Haslam and Wamp understand this, which is why they’ve spent so much time and so many resources here. Their appearances and the build up of their campaign organizations in Shelby County are both about their looming primary, and a recognition that firing up their base here now will likely pay off in November.

The absence of any McWherter campaign structure in Shelby County just reinforces the feeling that once again we’re being taken for granted, or worse, forgotten.

There’s little doubt in my mind that McWherter will win Shelby County. That’s not in question. The question is by how much, and how many votes will be delivered. The answer to that question will likely decide the outcome in this statewide election.




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