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Newspaper Editor Discusses Voter Turnout in Tennessee

November 7, 2006 at 6:30 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: The Senate seat in Tennessee is being vacated by Majority Leader Bill Frist, who’s retiring. Hoping to fill the vacancy are two experienced candidates running statewide for the first time. Former Chattanooga Mayor Bob Corker, a Republican, is running against Memphis Congressman Harold Ford, a Democrat. If elected, Ford would become the first black senator from a southern state since Reconstruction.

Joining us now with the latest on voter turnout in Tennessee is Otis Sanford, managing editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

And, Otis, were Tennessee polling places busy places today?

OTIS SANFORD, Memphis Commercial Appeal: Good afternoon. They were pretty busy today. I talked to an official at the Shelby County Election Commission just before I went on, and the projection is that voter turnout will be pretty high for a non-presidential race today.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, Tennessee also allows early voting. Did a lot of Tennesseans take advantage of that, as well?

OTIS SANFORD: Oh, absolutely. As a matter of fact, they set a record for early voting, somewhere in the neighborhood of 860,000-some people voted early.

The projections in Shelby County for the total turnout may approach 50 percent, and that would be extremely high for an off-presidential election year. By comparison, in 2002, the turnout locally was about 41 percent. So it’s pretty high today, but it still won’t get the presidential numbers that were garnered in 2004.

RAY SUAREZ: Was the profile discernibly different at all between eastern Tennessee, where Bob Corker is from, and western Tennessee, where Harold Ford is from?

OTIS SANFORD: Well, I don’t have any specific numbers there. I do know — I think Gwen mentioned it earlier — that it was raining today in east Tennessee. It’s hard for me to determine right now what impact that had.

It was cloudy here in Memphis, but it was not raining, and I think that helped the vote a little bit. But I think the projections are that voter turnout will be pretty high across the state, but still not reaching presidential numbers from 2004.

Tennessee voters

RAY SUAREZ: Are Tennesseans experienced ticket-splitters? I ask because your Democratic governor is running for re-election today and favored to win, and I'm wondering if that benefits Harold Ford at all.

OTIS SANFORD: Well, I think there will be a little bit of a bump for Harold today. Phil Bredesen is a pretty popular governor. The projections are that he will win very heavily.

And so, yes, I mean, when you look at it from that standpoint, yes, there are some ticket-splitters in the state. You have to look at the fact, though, that, in elections for president and for the U.S. Senate, a Democrat hasn't won in Tennessee since 1990. So that's an interesting fact to put out there, but Bredesen is a very popular governor, and he has been solidly supporting Congressman Ford throughout the campaign.

RAY SUAREZ: And I'm wondering, when I looked at the polls, which I checked regularly all through these last several weeks, Harold Ford was ahead in many polls until just recently. Was there an identifiable event, a week, something that happened to change the momentum of the campaign for either candidate?

OTIS SANFORD: Well, I think there were a couple of factors here. Heavy advertising by Bob Corker and also the Republican committee, a lot of it negative toward Congressman Ford, I think it took its toll on the congressman.

Also, there may have been a couple of missteps, people perceived as missteps by the congressman. The confrontation back on October 20th here in Memphis at a Corker press conference, comments that Congressman Ford made, the God reference, about a week or so ago.

Those things, I think, maybe took a little bit of a toll on the congressman. Of course, the polls that came out last week, including one that we commissioned with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, showed that Bob Corker was well ahead, and then a Gallup poll over the weekend said the race was much closer. But, yes, there were a couple of events, primarily fueled though by very heavy negative advertising against Congressman Ford that I think gave him a little bit of a stumble there at the end.

RAY SUAREZ: Otis Sanford of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, thanks for joining us.

OTIS SANFORD: Thank you.