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.

5 comments for “The Shelby County Election Outlook

  1. Dave Cambron
    June 24, 2010 at 2:41 pm

    All good comments Steve. At leat Mike is from West Tennessee. The Republicans will just pay lip service to Shelby County and then forget us after November. If all politics is local, than we are foolish if we don’t support our local state-wide candidates – even Repubs whould have supported Ford over Corker, at least Junior knows the issues here. We will continue to be screwed over until we start exercising our power and withold our support from those who ignore us.

  2. June 24, 2010 at 6:31 pm

    Missing in your analysis is one simple principle: reaction.

    For many years, the Legislature was run by Speaker of the House Jimmy Naifeh of Dyersburg and Lt. Gov. John Wilder of Somerville. They ran things with a decidedly West Tennessee flavor and the folks in East Tennessee resented it. Ask ’em and they’ll tell you. The state has been slowly trending Republican for many years, but these two men did everything in their power to make sure Democrats kept the reins of control for a very long time past the point when sharing is called for.

    They also ran things with iron hands filled with cash and favors for those so inclined to accept them. Both men kept a lot of issues out of legislative consideration for a long time. Anything to do with the Second Amendment would be the standout, but hardly the only, issue.

    Since two years ago, when Republican reached a Senate majority and a House tipping point, it’s been a different thing. And it’s all about reaction. After years of being shut out, East Tennessee Republicans rule the roost and West Tennessee Democrats have had to sit and watch. To me, this is totally understandable and not at all unexpected. You reap what you sow.

    It’s not likely Democrats will change this situation any time soon, but it’s to be hoped that Republicans won’t completely write off West Tennessee as a useless nest of people who won’t vote for them, either.

  3. benintn
    July 8, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Honest question: Where is the African-American community? What about jobless rural whites? They don’t blog. They DO vote.

  4. July 9, 2010 at 5:10 am

    Are there 200,000 “jobless rural whites” in a concentrated area that consistently vote Democratic anywhere in the state? How about 150,000?

    Better question, is there another county in the state where you can consistently get between150,000 & 250,000 votes period?

    No, there isn’t, and that’s my point Ben.

    But just like everywhere, people don’t come out vote because they wanted to get out of the office. In fact, voting is one of the furthest things from their minds most of the time. And actually, that condition exists and is the dominant force EVERYWHERE recardless of race, rural or urban, or any other set of circumstances. And actually, if you look at voter registration in many of these counties versus the population, and voter participation versus voter registration, no, they don’t vote with any more regularity than anyone else.

    Honestly, I don’t know what kind of contrast you’re trying to draw here.

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