Swing States: Tennessee

David Plotz offers the following question about a crucial swing state: “Tennessee: Kerry can’t win it. But can Bush lose it?”

“There are three things I know about John Kerry,” says Randal Vinson. “First, that he speaks three or four languages, and one of them is French. Second, that he’s married to an ex-senator’s wife who’s worth a billion dollars. And third, he is supposedly a Vietnam vet.

An amusing quote, although a rather odd lede for the piece, since it’s noted later that Vinson is a hard core Republican.

Vinson, a 56-year-old retired computer programmer, is whiling away the afternoon at Troy’s Barbershop in Huntingdon, the county seat of Carroll County in northwest Tennessee. Carroll is the bellwether county in a bellwether state: Tennessee has voted for the winner in the last 10 presidential elections, and Carroll has picked right every time. Carroll is rural, white, and struggling.

Huntingdon barber Troy Oatsvall Vinson’s scorn shouldn’t trouble the Kerry campaign too much: He’s a lifelong Republican. But Kerry does need to worry about Tennesseans like Troy Oatsvall—the Troy of Troy’s Barbershop. Oatsvall, who’s cut hair in Huntingdon for 40 years, never voted for a Republican presidential candidate before George W. Bush. He regrets his Bush vote, just not enough to check the box for Kerry. “I don’t like what Bush has done in Iraq. I don’t think one American boy is worth that whole country. But I don’t like Kerry. Did you ever meet someone and just not like the way he looks? That’s the way I feel about Kerry. I just don’t like the way he looks.” [Insert snarky comparative analysis of “looks” of Oatsvall and Kerry here.]

For three days in Tennessee, that is practically the nicest thing I hear about Kerry from a Democrat. Tennessee Democrats say Kerry wants to take their guns, that he’s more liberal than Al Gore, that they don’t know anything about him and don’t really care to, that the only reason to vote for him is that he isn’t Bush.

This makes Tennessee different from other states, how, exactly?

The rest of the piece is pretty interesting, actually. The problems both candidates are having in the Volunteer State are pretty indicative of the ones they’re having nationally. Also, there’s a photo of Republican Party Chairwoman Beth Harwell, who is much better looking than either Kerry or Oaksvald.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Curtis Paul says:

    Have you ever heard the phrase…”Don’t judge a book by it’s cover”?

    What a typical comment for a southerner to make. Not liking someone based on how they look… Kind of sounds like something else I’ve heard before (being the white northerner that I am).

    How about NOT electing a president based on how he looks. It’s not like the job of president is to pose for a centerfold spot in Playboy….we just need someone in office who will not spend tax payers money on wars we don’t need, and one that won’t lie to us in order to get us to agree with him. We know Bush does this, but we don’t know if Kerry will do this…So I favor Kerry, I don’t think Kerry will mess with our minds as much as Bush has tried to, either way, we know Bush will try.

  2. Paul Brinkman says:

    It was also once said “…to thine ownself be true.”

    As a white Northerner who has decided to move to the South, I can appreciate Mr. Paul’s comments. Those comments, however, are short-sighted and stereotypic at best. It takes a while to understand the ideosyncrasies of the Southern life and the local people.

    In my fifteen years of living in the South, I have observed that (for the most part)the citizens here are a hard-working, honest people who have learned over time to trust their instincts when making decisions, to be cautiously optimistic when dealing with “strangers” and to be skeptical when listening to smooth-talking politicians.

    Don’t get me wrong… I have seen plenty of bias here from both sides of the isle. The lifelong Democrats and Republicans both stand firmly entrenched in their respective camps and the debate can sometimes get lively. The demeanor of such debates, however, usually lack the cold cynasism that I had grown accostomed to back home in the North.

    Take a minute to look at the history Mr. Paul and not just your assumption of Southern ignorance. The beauty of the political process is very evident here in Carroll County; and it has been for many generations. Forty years and ten consecutive elections worth of correctly picking the Presidential winner is hardly dumb luck. Kudos to the author for recognizing this and for finding a great place to check the pulse of an important swing state, the barbershop. I know Troy Oatsvall. I don’t always agree with him, but I know that he is undeserving of the “typical Southerner” label (as a Northerner, I’m well aware of the context of such nomenclature).

    Good luck with your Bush-bashing, Mr. Paul. Perhaps you can persuade those around you to follow the Utopian ideals of Mr. Kerry.

    After all, it’s hard not to judge the book by its cover when the best the book can do is compliment its own hair.