Sunday Column: Are TN Legislators More Conservative Than TN Voters?

Democratic President Barack Obama won a bit more than 39 percent of the vote in losing Tennessee to Republican Mitt Romney last month. After the same election, however, Democrats hold just 21 percent of state Senate seats and 28 percent of state House seats.
Why the discrepancy? The most likely suspect, in a word: redistricting. The GOP controlled reapportionment this year for the first time since Reconstruction and when the election arrived, increased the majorities they had already under the old Democratic-engineered districts.
In the Senate, Democrats were reduced to seven of 33 seats; in the House, to 28 of 99.
Now, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey had some additional thoughts when asked about this the other day, the gist being that the Republican legislative election machinery is superior not only to its Democratic counterpart, but also to the GOP presidential campaign.
“We ran a campaign and he (Romney) didn’t,” said Ramsey. “It’s all about organization.”
But he conceded redistricting was a factor.
Both national presidential campaigns ignored Tennessee equally, Democrats writing it off and Republicans taking it for granted. So that playing field was pretty level.

On the legislative campaign field, the GOP had dealt the redistricting card — just as Democrats had for decades past — and then had a huge financial advantage and, by many accounts, coattails from the presidential campaign.
In a Vanderbilt University poll of Tennesseans released last week, the partisans were pretty equally divided — 32 percent of those surveyed calling themselves Democrats, 30 percent Republicans and 28 percent independent. The rest named another party or declined to answer. The poll also showed Obama with a 45 percent approval rating, up a bit from past polling and better than he performed in the election — a bump that John Geer, a political science professor who oversaw the effort, says likely is an “afterglow” from his national victory.
Ask to characterize their personal political leanings, 36 percent said they were conservatives, 38 percent moderate and 21 percent liberal. Sixty percent said they would favor requiring the wealthy to pay more taxes as a part of national deficit reduction.
“It’s fair to say Tennesseans are conservative, but they are much more purple than they are deep red,” said Geer. “We are conservative, but it is not quite as conservative as some may think.” And, he said, Tennesseans as a whole are “reasonably pragmatic” and “not all about ideology.”
Those polled by Vandy also gave Gov. Bill Haslam a 68 percent overall approval rate — including, notably, a 60 percent approval among Democrats. One suspects this is because our governor is seen as a fairly pragmatic fellow and a generally nice guy, at least when compared to some other Republicans in the General Assembly or Congress who get a lot of attention.
Still, the Legislature came in at 52 percent approval, just seven points ahead of Obama but very good compared to the U.S. Congress, with 21 percent approval.
In a 2011 Vandy poll, the state Legislature had just a 42 percent approval rating and thus gained acceptance in a year that included a lot of controversial legislation. Maybe that’s because legislative actions that got a lot of attention this year made some previously-discontented conservatives happy. And, well, as far as doing many basic things (a balanced budget, for example) they do stack up well against Congress.
The poll had some other interesting stuff. Only 7 percent of those polled favored secession from the United States, versus 90 percent in opposition. (About 35,000 people have signed a petition calling for Tennessee to secede.)
Overall, it seems reasonable to say that the General Assembly is more conservative and more Republican than the Tennessee electorate as a whole. But at this point, that discrepancy has not resulted in any voter backlash.
Given the state of redistricting lines, it probably won’t in the short term — barring some really kooky activity.
In the long term, though, the discrepancy could grow if Republicans don’t keep in mind the thinking of younger voters and minorities. And if it gets too big, without attention, Tennessee could begin swinging back toward Democrats. Maybe about 2016 or so.

Note: This is a column also appearing in Sunday’s News Sentinel

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