Sunday Column: Ramifications of Mitt’s TN Margin

While there may be no doubt about the outcome of the presidential election in Tennessee, the size of Mitt Romney’s Volunteer State victory is a matter of some speculation and dispute. There seems some general agreement, however, on the ramifications of the margin of Mitt on down-the-ballot races.
State Republican Chairman Chris Devaney says that, given increasing voter unhappiness with President Barack Obama, there’s a good chance that Romney will better the Tennessee performance of George W. Bush in 2004 or John McCain in 2008. Bush carried Tennessee by 14 percentage points, McCain by 15.
State Democratic Chairman Chip Forrester says, given voter unhappiness with Romney and increasing acceptance of Obama, there’s not any such chance.
But both party chairs agreed — albeit with some difference in details and considerable contrast in rhetorical remarks while relating them in recent interviews — that a presidential candidate with a big, double-digit margin has coattails.

The basic premise: Some portion of voters motivated to get out and vote for their favored presidential candidate — or against the other guy — may not have a clue about the down-the-ballot candidates. But they’ll push the button for the candidate deemed closest to their presidential favorite. Party label is often the deciding factor.
Enter YouGov, a market research company, which last week became the first national polling outfit of the season to do a survey on the Mitt margin in our fair state, all others having deemed us unworthy of spending money for a poll since the outcome is already decided.
The YouGov result was Romney by seven percentage points, 49-42 percent. If the poll is correct (and there are a couple of aspects that could make an old political junkie scratch his head a bit), then the Democrats may be correct in the speculation dispute.
In Tennessee, the only down-the-ballot races not already decided are a handful of seats in the state Legislature. Most are already decided and Republicans are as certain of holding a solid majority in the House and Senate as Romney is of carrying Tennessee. The only uncertainty, as with Romney, is the size of that margin.
As with Democrats when they ruled the state, the Republicans have designed redistricting of the Legislature to guarantee that party primaries decide most legislative elections. But there are always those unavoidable, numerically dictated situations where there is actual competition and the winner can be decided by impressionable, thinking voters rather than those marching in lockstep. And the number of those districts can increase if the allocated lockstep voters of either party stay home, thanks to their presidential candidate.
Ergo, state Democrats seized upon the YouGov presidential poll as a sign of hope in an otherwise dismal Tennessee political landscape.
“Coupled with excitement for the president from key voting blocs — women, young people, black and Latino Tennesseans, this tightening trend, if it continues through Election Day, could be a factor in deciding close races for Democratic candidates down-ballot,” said Brandon Puttbrese, the state party communications director, in emailing an excerpt from the poll to media.
Legislative races are heating up across Tennessee, though you may not have noticed unless you live in one of the few competitive districts. In most places, it’s rather like the presidential race for Tennessee — the result is taken for granted.
To generalize, Republicans seem to be mostly sticking with the proven theme of “all Democrats are like Obama,” used in 2008 and 2010, while Democrats are more likely to target Republican candidates on specific personal behavior or (gasp) legislative issues. There have been party-generated attacks on Republican incumbents for supporting the “Health Care Compact,” which Democrats say would threaten Medicare, and for embracing for-profit virtual schools, which they say could hurt public schools.
If the pattern continues, and if there is a decrease in the magnitude of the Republican presidential romp through Tennessee, Democrats might even win some of those competitive legislative races. But not enough, of course, to threaten the overall outcome of continued Republican rule in the House and Senate.

Note: This also appears in Sunday’s News Sentinel.

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