We’ve been inviting readers to join in our discussion about the meaning of the recent mayor’s election, and we received an email from longtime Democratic Party strategist David Cocke, and with his permission, we are posting it here.
Mr. Cocke is an attorney with the Bogatin Law Firm in Memphis and chaired the local Democratic Party in 1987-1989 and 1999-2001. He was recently appointed as a member of the Tennessee Human Rights Commission.
Here’s his insights:
I just had a few thoughts regarding turnout which I think might put some of this in perspective.
First, there are about 100,000 on the rolls that are never expected to vote. Many of them would be purged (dead, moved, inactive) if we had a routine purging process, but that process is expensive and takes a long time to implement (the feds require notice and voters can’t be purged for two federal elections). There are others who have registered but never voted. They may have been registered as part of a high school recruitment, motor voter, or simply in a effort to get a free I.D.
You will also note that a relatively large number of voters are older and that the percentage of younger voters is quite low. In the political world, that is to be expected. Older voters have property, pay taxes, send children and grandchildren to school, live in neighborhoods that they can’t or won’t move from and in many cases are stuck where they are.
Government is important to them. Young people may or may not have these same concerns and, if they are unmarried or without children, can easily move if they are unhappy with their neighborhoods or their government. Thus, young people do not have the same motivation to vote, particularly on local matters. Of course, if they are interested in the environment, human rights, foreign affairs, etc. they may be motivated to vote in national elections, and many of them limit their voting to an election every four years.
It is my experience that people tend not to vote on specific issues and ideas. They are more inclined to vote for their cultural identity. If they live in conservative, white, middle and upper class suburbia, they will vote accordingly. If they live in liberal, black, lower class inner city, they will identify with people who come from that environment. They know that issues come and go, but your cultural identity tends to stay with you your entire life.
Of course there are not just two classes in Memphis. You can probably find many variations, but people within those classes tend to vote similarly.
Culture, Choices And Connections
If you apply that reasoning to the Memphis mayoral race, you can see that while there are many black voters who were upset with Herenton, they could not identify with the alternatives. If they had an alternative, as in 1999 with Joe Ford, they might choose it, but this time the choices were not as clear.
Likewise, in the white community, there were competing cultural choices, obviously not just racial, but economic class, party, connections to the establishment, gender. Those differences made it difficult for the anti-Herenton forces to unite behind either a black male member of the establishment or a white female member of the anti-establishment Democrats. The remarkable thing is that both camps made inroads into unfamiliar territory, not that they competed with each other instead of the incumbent.
If the midst of this confusion, it is not surprising that the vote was not as high as we hoped and may have expected, given the great hype associated with this election. For many people, it was not an easy choice. Even the decision to vote for the candidate who had the best chance of defeating the incumbent was confusing, given The Commercial Appeal coverage and the spin by the Morris campaign. And if you don’t know whom you are voting for, you have a tendency not to vote at all.
It’s Not Just About GOTV
In the political world, campaign strategists often campaign to suppress the vote, not enhance it. Negative campaigning is the tool of that strategy; low turnout is the result. Here, much of the motivation to vote was negative, throw out the incumbent, defeat the establishment, and this environment is not conducive to bringing out the marginal voter.
The solution? I don’t have one. If my candidate will benefit from a low turnout, I will advise them accordingly. If the opposite, I will recommend a lot of hoopla.
It’s the way of politics.