In the days and weeks leading up to Tennessee’s March 6 presidential primary, most of the state will be transfixed on the Republican race, waiting to see which of the four remaining Republican candidates will win over Tennessee voters. After all, Tennessee has been notoriously red in recent years, when it comes to the general election.
A Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won the state since 1996.
And while the attention will be focused on the Republicans’ heated primary, the Tennessee Democratic Party won’t be sitting back and enjoying the show. In fact, TNDP communications director Brandon Puttbrese said the Obama campaign is already established in Tennessee — and is gearing up for the general election.
“I’m not pretending that Tennessee is going to go for Obama, but I think it’s going to be much tougher in 2012 than it was in 2008,” Puttbrese said.
If nothing else, he said, the Obama campaign will be trying to make it tougher. Last year, Obama made a widely publicized visit to Booker T. Washington High School in Memphis. Vice President Joe Biden has also made several stops in Middle Tennessee for fundraisers over the past few years.
Last month, Obama’s national political director Katherine Archuleta was the keynote speaker at the TNDP’s Latino Summit in Nashville. Obama for America groups have also mobilized in the state’s four largest counties and other counties in Middle Tennessee like Montgomery and Maury.
“We’re not this red state with no return,” Puttbrese said. “[Voters] just need to hear an alternative message. That’s our goal is to give it to them.”
Joshua Clinton, an associate political science professor at Vanderbilt University, isn’t as optimistic for Obama’s chances in Tennessee. He was asked how much money or resources he’d spend in Tennessee if he were running Obama’s campaign.
“I’d probably invest nothing, just to be honest,” Clinton said. “If you look at the dynamics of the race ... if you think back to 2008, [John] McCain won very handily in Tennessee, 57 percent to 42 percent. There were only nine states that McCain had a larger margin in than Tennessee.”
Simply put, Clinton thinks Obama’s values don’t match up with the average Tennessee voter.
“If you look at Tennessee voters, they are typically more conservative, fiscally and socially, than the average voter in the country,” Clinton said. “That has implications for how Obama has pitched himself and the policies he has pursued. It’s not what the median Tennessean necessarily would do if they were in charge.”
The TNDP said an Obama campaign presence in Tennessee could drive voter turnout and help other democratic candidates on the ballot.
Clinton said, however, it was still unclear whether congressional or House races would be competitive or heated enough to warrant a push from Obama.
“There’s not much benefit [to campaigning] even then, given the nature of the democratic party in Tennessee,” Clinton said.
But the TNDP is still looking forward to an eventful year. They are hosting their annual Jackson Day on March 31 to serve as a kickoff to the general election.
Puttbrese said there was increased interest among prospective delegates to attend the Democratic National Convention, because it will be held in Charlotte, N.C. — a drivable distance from Nashville.
“The Tennessee Democratic Party has taken its lumps,” Puttbrese said. “So, what we’re looking for is trying to build a stronger, more effective party at the grassroots level. We’re working on ways to aggressively defend our democratic values and certainly build a more inclusive party across all of our constituency and bring them into the fold and really push to bring in new blood.”