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Competitive Democratic Ballot And Support For Trump Spur Early Voters In Tennessee

Blake Farmer | WPLN

About 337,000 Tennesseans have so far cast their ballots for this year’s presidential primaries, a dip from 2016 when both parties had competitive races.

But it’s a marked increase from early voting in 2012, the last cycle that featured an incumbent president.

According to data from the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, the early voting period that wrapped up this week saw nearly as many Republicans as Democrats casting ballots — even though President Donald Trump faces no serious competition.

In fact, Democratic voters didn’t surpass Republican until the final day of early voting. Some voters interviewed at the polls told WPLN News that it’s been difficult to make a decision.

“I’m not excited …  about anyone that I have seen that is still in the race,” said Pat Kovalcheck, who described herself as a moderate Democrat. “But, my desire to see our president only serve one term is pretty strong.”

Early voting in Tennessee was down about 13% compared to 2016. That was a relatively strong year for voter turnout, as both parties went into Super Tuesday with some doubt as to who would be their nominees. Trump and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both wound up winning the state by double digits, helping to seal their eventual nominations.

This year’s race looks far more like 2012, when an incumbent president, Barack Obama, had one party’s nominations already locked-up. And when compared to that year, turnout during early voting is actually up just over 67%.

Tennessee’s open primaries may have helped drive turnout. In Williamson County, a Republican stronghold, 7,058 people voted early in the Democratic primary — compared to 3,137 Democrats in 2016 and just 196 in 2012.

Wilson, Sumner and Rutherford counties also saw big swings toward the Democratic primary.

Even Davidson and Shelby, the state’s two most Democratic counties, saw increases in Democratic participation of 25% or more.

Still, Republican turnout was unusually strong for a race that is practically uncontested. Republican participation trailed Democratic by just 2,429 ballots. More Republicans have so far taken part this year than in 2012, when Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum battled for GOP voters.

Sending a message about Trump — whether positive or negative — appeared to be on the minds of many voters. One person who came out was Bob Schmitt of Wilson County. He said the impeachment trial helped him see the importance of supporting Trump in the primary.

“He’s conservative. He’s actually turned out to be a better president than I thought he would be,” Schmitt said. “I wish we could take away his Twitter account. Other than that, I think he’s done a very admirable job.”

The official election day for the presidential primaries in Tennessee is next Tuesday. You can find out where to vote by visiting

Chas joined WPLN in 2015 after eight years with The Tennessean, including more than five years as the newspaper's statehouse reporter.Chas has also covered communities, politics and business in Massachusetts and Washington, D.C. Chas grew up in South Carolina and attended Columbia University in New York, where he studied economics and journalism. Outside of work, he's a dedicated distance runner, having completed a dozen marathons
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