O’Hara: Bredesen has steep hill to climb as early voting gets underway

Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen speaks to reporters in Nashville on Oct. 16, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

A guest column from former Tennessean reporter Jim O’Hara:

When Phil Bredesen announced his U.S. Senate bid in December 2017, he had a steep hill to climb. If you look at the numbers – voter registrations, turnout projections and August primary results, that hill hasn’t gotten any less steep.

The Tennessee Secretary of State’s office released in June 2018 the latest voter registration numbers statewide. The 10 counties with the most registered voters are: Blount, Davidson, Hamilton, Knox, Montgomery, Rutherford, Shelby, Sullivan, Sumner, and Williamson. In 2014, those 10 counties provided 54% of the total vote.

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight offers a reasonable projection for voter turnout in November in Tennessee: about 43%. A 43% turnout is about seven percent above the 2014 turnout, and so it captures the “enthusiasm” notion. If those top 10 counties all turn out at a 43% level, they will cast almost 949,000 votes, or slightly more than 55% of the statewide total.

In short, those 10 counties will in all probability decide the U.S. Senate race in Tennessee. The other 85 counties will have marginal impact.

In the 2016 presidential contest, voter turnout in those 10 counties ranged from 52% in Montgomery to 72% in Williamson County, with the rest hovering around the low-to-mid 60% range.

President Trump carried eight of the 10 counties, losing only Davidson and Shelby to Hillary Clinton. His lowest margin of victory came in Hamilton County with 58%, and his most lop-sided victory was in Sullivan County with 78% of the vote. Clinton won Davidson and Shelby counties with 63% and 62%, respectively.

So, how steep does that make Bredesen’s hill? Applying an arbitrary 60-40 split (but not unreasonable given the 2016 results) to the 10 counties and assuming Bredesen wins Davidson and Shelby and Blackburn the other eight, Bredesen has a “base” vote of slightly more than 462,000 votes and Blackburn a “base” vote of almost 487,000 votes.

The August primary results reflected this. In those 10 counties, Bredesen garnered just under 230,000 votes and Blackburn was just shy of 260,000 votes. An interesting angle of the August primary is the fall off for Blackburn from the Republican gubernatorial primary. She got almost 68,000 votes fewer than were cast for the four leading Republican candidates for governor.

What can get Bredesen up his hill? Clearly, the campaign is betting big on the unstinting barrage of advertising as well as the candidate’s effort to keep Blackburn from “nationalizing” the race with his comments on Senator Chuck Schumer and Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The intangible of Blackburn’s relationship to the Republican base as seen by her August performance vis-à-vis the governor’s race is out there as well. There was a reason they flew President Trump into the historic Republican heartland of Upper East Tennessee.

At the end of Election Day, it will be the ground game and turnout. Can Bredesen cut into that 60-40 split in Blount, Hamilton, Knox, Montgomery, Rutherford, Sullivan, Sumner and Williamson counties? How much can he outperform 60-40 in Davidson and Shelby counties?


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