Brainstorming the Vote 

Thanks to some conscientious reporting from The New York Times' Adam Nossiter this week, the rest of the national media has been alerted to the possibility that the still-controversial U.S. Senate race just concluded in Tennessee may have owed its outcome to factors other than race.

That this conclusion comes as no special revelation to most informed observers inside the state itself is almost beside the point. Anybody who turned a TV set on to a Washington- or New York-based political talk show during the Senate campaign's stretch drive is aware that the consensus among national pundits was overwhelmingly that the contest between victorious Republican Bob Corker and Democrat Harold Ford Jr. hinged on race and almost nothing else. And, so long as that conventional wisdom holds, any point of view expressed by us local yokels may be deemed irrelevant by the big boys in the well-appointed offices up yonder. After all, are we not suspect witnesses, having perhaps drunk of the bigot's brew ourselves?

Nossiter's conclusions, based on his time logged on the campaign trail in Tennessee and on numerous interviews and other shoe-leather research, could constitute the beginning of an overdue reappraisal of this national rush to judgment.

While acknowledging that a major statewide race by an African American like Ford runs counter to the Southern tradition, Nossiter also mentions two other factors contributing to the Memphis congressman's narrow defeat by Corker. One is simply the fact that Democrats in recent years have not bothered to sustain the once-prevalent party tradition of all-out effort in every corner of our presumed "red state." Another is the fact that, as former state Democratic chairman Will Cheek of Nashville confided to Nossiter, "The Ford name has a lot of baggage in West Tennessee."

That amounts to a statement of the obvious, particularly when, at the time of the November 7th election, A) Uncle John Ford faced imminent trial on charges of bribery and extortion relating to his service as a state senator; B) Papa Harold Ford Sr. had uttered some indiscreet, religious-based rhetoric on behalf of his son Jake, a candidate for brother Harold Jr.'s 9th District congressional seat; and C) the aforesaid Jake Ford himself seemed determined to provoke unflattering media coverage.

Memphis pollster Berge Yacoubian confided this week that he has launched a survey of his own, focused largely on the rural West Tennessee counties where Ford's totals ran below expectations and conspicuously less well than Governor Phil Bredesen, his Democratic ticket-mate.

"I don't have a client for this," explained Yacoubian. "It's just research for its own sake." Concentrating on the Bredesen-Ford differential in rural counties, Yacoubian hopes to establish the pecking order of five possible explanations: 1) the lack of a strong, well-financed opponent for Bredesen; 2) doubts concerning Ford's youth and experience level; 3) race; 4) Ford family factors; and 5) none of the above.

Whatever the veteran pollster turns up (and he promises he'll let us know), it will not write a finale to speculation as to what happened in the Senate race. It may be that no single explanation will ever be established. All we know is that Corker won and Ford lost, and we're open-minded as to why.

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