Tennessee may hold key in GOP primary

Candidate swarm expected to descend on state

FILE - In this May 30, 2015 file photo, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks in Nashville, Tenn.
photo FILE - In this May 30, 2015 file photo, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush speaks in Nashville, Tenn.

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee's spot in next year's March 1 Super Tuesday presidential primaries is likely to make the state a frequent campaign stopover for candidates, particularly Republicans, in the early phase of the 2016 presidential election, political scientists and leaders of both parties agree.

The 2016 primary election calendar is still fluid, but Tennessee's March 1 date is firm. Twelve states tentatively are set to hold primaries or caucuses that Tuesday, including seven in the South.

Residents of only four states now are scheduled to vote earlier - those known as "carve-out" states because they traditionally hold the earliest primaries and caucuses every election: the Iowa caucuses Feb. 1, the New Hampshire primary Feb. 9, the South Carolina primary Feb. 20 and the Nevada caucuses Feb. 23.

Key dates

* Monday, Feb. 1, 2016: Iowa caucuses* Tuesday, March 1, 2016: Tennessee primary* Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016: General election

Tennessee's shift to Republican dominance likely means it won't be a battleground in next year's November general election. Whoever wins the GOP nomination will be favored for the state's winner-take-all 11 electoral votes, so most of the campaign visits by candidates will occur in the early primary season.

"Tennessee will be an important battleground in the GOP primary. It will not be important on election night itself [in November]. It will be called for the Republican candidate about one minute after the polls close," predicted Richard Pacelle, chairman of the University of Tennessee's political science department. "Because Tennessee is important, I am sure we will see a number of candidates come through. However, there are two factors that might marginalize Tennessee a little.

"One, Super Tuesday means that there will be a lot of other noise that night. Second, given the length of the 'states' of Tennessee [east, middle and west], it is a difficult state to blanket."

With four major media outlets - Knoxville, Nashville, Memphis and Chattanooga - "ad buys and visits are a little more difficult than in states such as Virginia and South Carolina," Pacelle said.

Vanderbilt University political science professor John Geer, co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll, agreed much of the action will occur in the run up to the primary.

"Tennessee will be important because it is early, has a number of delegates [to the national conventions] at stake and no candidate has a built-in edge. It should be quite competitive," he said. "There is good reason to think we will see a lot of Republican candidates over the next eight months. That is partly due to Tennessee being an early and important state. It will also reflect the huge number of candidates running."

At least 14 Republicans and five Democrats have formally declared their candidacies, and two other Republicans are likely to do so soon. Geer said he thinks the Republican field will thin out by January.

A dozen of the Republicans spoke at the National Rifle Association's annual meeting in Nashville in April, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spoke at the Tennessee GOP's big Statesmen's Dinner May 30. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie keynoted the same event in 2014.

"There is no doubt Tennessee is going to play an important role in the upcoming election," said state GOP Chairman Ryan Haynes of Knoxville. "When we hold our primary on March 1 as part of the 'SEC Primary,' the presidential campaigns will just be coming out of the first four 'carve-out' states and will be looking to make a splash in the South. With one of the strongest Republican parties in the country and large media markets, I expect we will see a lot of attention from those campaigns as they seek to maximize their vote totals."

Tennessee Democratic Party Chairwoman Mary Mancini said it's still early in the process, but the state is likely to be a battleground in her party's primary, too.

"Eight years ago, we were a closely contested state, and I expect that to be the case again this year," Mancini said. "And Tennessee definitely has the potential to be in play for the general. We voted for Bill Clinton twice, and so it's reasonable to think that 2016 will create an opportunity for the Democrats to once again add Tennessee to the Democratic column on election night."

That hasn't happened for a Democratic presidential candidate since Clinton's 1996 re-election, nor for a Democrat for statewide office since Phil Bredesen's re-election as governor in 2006.

Republicans assume former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will win the Democratic nomination, and she has a base of Democratic support in the state. Haynes said the GOP "won't take anything for granted" in the state's general election.

"We're going to do everything we can to turn out as many Republican votes against her as possible," Haynes said.

Mancini said Democrats are likely to campaign in Tennessee for the primary; some have volunteer operations in place here already.

"Tennessee is a critical state for campaigns because winning here on Super Tuesday helps to show general election viability and the ability to reach out to urban and rural voters," she said.

Tennessee's long, narrow geography is a help and a hindrance in politics. Haynes cited one characteristic that will make Tennessee a draw during Super Tuesday: Tennessee media reach voters in Tennessee and in neighboring states also voting on Super Tuesday.

"That allows the campaigns a larger return on their investment when it comes to both earned media [news coverage] and paid media [campaign advertising]," he said.

There's another factor: the state's top elected officials generally have high favorability ratings with voters, Haynes said, and it behooves national candidates to be seen and photographed with them.

"Having the opportunity to potentially campaign with a popular governor, two powerful senators and a host of congressional and state leaders who have strong voices on critical issues provides a great platform for these candidates," he said.

When Jeb Bush spoke at the GOP event in May, Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker all appeared with him and spoke favorably of him, although none has endorsed a candidate yet. Bush returned the favor during his speech, singling out all three for some accolade.