Opinion: Tennessee feels rural/urban divide

By , Daily Memphian Updated: November 04, 2020 4:00 AM CT | Published: November 04, 2020 4:00 AM CT
Chris Herrington
Daily Memphian

Chris Herrington

Chris Herrington covers the Memphis Grizzlies and writes about Memphis culture, food, and civic life. He lives in the Vollintine-Evergreen neighborhood of Midtown with his wife, two kids, and two dogs.

“So I walk the streets of Memphis, but I’ll have you understand, that Tennessee is not the state I’m in.”

Those words from a 1977 song by Joe Ely are rarely as true as on Election Day, although not quite in the manner that songsmith Butch Hancock, Ely’s partner in the Texas band the Flatlanders, wrote them. 

The lyric’s preceding lines contrast Memphis with Nashville, but whatever cultural distinctions still separate these cities, on Election Day they could be singing a duet. 

As of this writing, we don’t know who the next president will be. Arizona appears to have flipped to Biden, with lots of votes in up-for-grabs states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Georgia yet to be counted. Biden leaves the night with a slight edge, but President Donald Trump’s path to reelection remains very much alive. It’s murky. 

Tennessee contained no mystery. Trump’s apparent 24-point win is only slightly off his 2016 Tennessee numbers, while Biden’s 31-point Shelby County lead, if it holds, will be four points ahead of Hillary Clinton’s in 2016 and even ahead of either of Barack Obama’s Shelby County wins. 

During the 2018 midterms, one national political strategist took the temperature of the country this way: “Red places want to stay red. Blues places want to stay blue … and the fever ain’t breaking.”

There’s too much voting across the nation left to analyze to judge how much that diagnosis still holds. But it appears to still apply in Tennessee, where urban areas have shifted even more to the left while the rest of the state wipes out that movement. 

With political identification across the country increasingly sorting along intrastate geographical lines, those “red/blue” state maps obscure a more severe rural/urban divide. 

Trump did not create this dynamic. His presidency has been both a product of this growing divide and an accelerant. In few places has this been as true as in Tennessee. 

The most populous county in Tennessee, Shelby has long been an electoral outlier relative to the rest of the state. But this has grown more true over the past several presidential election cycles, with the trend also increasingly felt in Nashville’s Davidson County and, to a lesser and somewhat different degree, in Chattanooga’s Hamilton County and Knoxville’s Knox County.

In 2004, when George W. Bush ran for reelection, Shelby County went for challenger John Kerry by 16 points, while the state as a whole went for Bush by 14 points. A 30-point swing from county to state results. 

That’s pretty big, but it’s steadily grown bigger: A 42-point swing in 2008, a 46-point swing in 2012 and a whopping 53-point swing in 2016, when Hillary Clinton won Shelby County by 27 points while Trump won the state by 26. That 53-point swing seems to have been topped in this cycle, up to a 55-point spread between Shelby County and the state totals. And this time Davidson County has caught up and surpassed it: Davidson moved from a 24-point swing relative to state results in 2004 up to a 52-point swing in 2016 and now a 56-point swing in this cycle.

Knox and Hamilton have been reliably Republican in recent presidential elections, but in 2004 each was more Republican than the state overall. That is no longer the case. In 2016, Knox went for Trump by 24 points. Four years later, Trump’s margin there was cut to 15, with the county nine points to the left of the state overall. Hamilton is inching closer to competitive, with a 17-point Trump win in 2016 cut to 10 this time, 14 points to the left of the state. 

Translation: Rural Tennessee has grown deep “red” so hard and so fast that it’s swamped the increasingly “blue” vote in the urban centers. Come election time, the state’s three “grand divisions” are no longer East, Middle and West, but bigger cities, mid-sized cities and rural areas.

A more dramatic and perhaps instructive example of this increased urban/rural political split comes from comparing two Senate races within this time frame: 2006 and 2018. 

In 2006, former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker squeaked out a three-point win over his Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis. In 2018, for the same Senate seat, Republican U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn nearly quadrupled Corker’s win, to 11 points, over (once?) popular former Gov. Phil Bredesen.

How did the electorate change in the interim? Moderate Nashvillian Bredesen won Shelby County by a higher margin than hometown kid Ford had 12 years early. Meanwhile Ford, a young Black man from Memphis, performed better in rural Tennessee than the moderate, white former governor would a decade later. The urban and rural electorates had both hardened substantially. 

A Trumpier Tennessee

Four years ago, as Trump completed his unlikely rise from reality television figure and New York tabloid fixture to the White House, the most prominent statewide office-holders in Tennessee were Gov. Bill Haslam and Sens. Corker and Lamar Alexander. Establishment conservatives all. In Tennessee, Republican leadership, at least at the very top, was still in the Howard Baker mold.

After four years of Trump, that trio has been replaced by Bill Lee, Marsha Blackburn and the incoming Bill Hagerty, a former Trump administration official.

In each case, a Trump skeptic or at times uneasy ally was replaced by a fervent supporter. Trump has shifted Tennessee politics more in his image.

While this has happened, the force of a solidified rural vote has pushed Tennessee further away from the rest of the country, at least politically. 

In 1996, the last time a Democrat won Tennessee in a presidential election, the state still ran six points behind Bill Clinton’s national margin. Since then, minus a small favorite-son blip for Al Gore in 2000, which still wasn’t enough to win the state, the gap between the Tennessee vote and the national popular vote has widened each cycle: A 12-point difference in 2004, 22 points in 2008, 24 points in 2012 and 28 points in 2016. Whether this trend continues in 2020 is, in election parlance, too early to call.

But the South has not moved in unison in this trend away from the national vote. 

Among Southern states, broadly conceived, Virginia and Florida have consistently looked the most like America on Election Day. North Carolina has been steadily trending toward the national vote. Georgia and Texas have shifted hard over the past two cycles, into true “battleground” territory even if they don’t flip this time. 

The only Southern states that drifted further from the national vote in each cycle from 2000 to 2016 were Tennessee, Arkansas and Kentucky. (The remaining Southern states – Alabama, South Carolina, Louisiana and Mississippi – have been reliably Republican in presidential elections but have fluctuated more relative to national results.)

You’ll forgive me – and I’m an Arkansas native – for thinking the former grouping seems like a healthier place for a state to be. 

What’s this about? Despite two cities with metro areas over a million, Tennessee has less urban density and less major urban growth than that earlier group of states. And what it particularly has in common with Arkansas and Kentucky is relative rural homogeneity: These are the three Southern states with the highest percentage of white population. 

This Trump-accelerated hardening of political identities has left Tennessee more politically isolated from the country, and Tennessee’s cities more isolated from the rest of the state. 


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