vision 2020

In Tennessee, Voting for Biden Amid the Wreckage

Damage from Monday’s catastrophic storm. Photo: Lauren Matarazzo

A woman pushed a baby carriage through East Nashville, tears streaming down her face. It was Tuesday afternoon, and to walk down the sidewalks here meant ducking under stray electrical wires, stepping over toppled trees and telephone poles, and weaving through the TV news trucks parked on the grass.

Tornadoes rolled through the state overnight, killing at least 25 people, including children, in Putnam, Benton, Wilson, and Davidson counties. Right here in East Nashville, the storm razed more than 30 businesses.

I didn’t know, before I saw it here, that a tornado destroys with precision; that winds can rip a tree from its root and send it through the roof of one house while the house next door remains untouched, hardly a blade of grass bent out of place on the front lawn. But it’s true that an awful thing happened here, and people died, and you can’t return to normal after that kind of storm.

The weather, then, just hours later, was some kind of sick joke. Sun illuminated shards of life as it had been — bricks and glass from the windows of homes or the YMCA or the liquor store. Half of Basement East, a music venue, collapsed into itself, but not the half with the mural that reads I BELIEVE IN NASHVILLE. That seemed like a good omen, if you believe in such things, and at a time like this, you might be inclined to. The people who live here still live here. They crowded into the bars and the restaurants that survived. And they showed up to the polls to vote.

Photo: Lauren Matarazzo

For Christopher Hale, there was at least some good news on the way later in the evening in the form of Biden’s convincing win in Tennessee — an outcome that looked unlikely as recently as last week. Hale is a 31-year-old aspiring politician who lives in the Nashville suburbs. In 2018, he ran for a seat in the Fourth Congressional District and lost. A pro-life Democrat who says he did faith outreach for Barack Obama’s campaign and briefly worked in his White House, Hale has endorsed Joe Biden, although he holds no formal role on the campaign.

For months, Hale had been worried about Michael Bloomberg. The billionaire was the only Democratic candidate who seemed to be actively campaigning for Tennessee’s 64 delegates — opening field offices, hiring staff, running ads, stabbing lawn signs into the dirt, showing up, spending millions of dollars. “He has 40 staffers in Tennessee,” Hale said. “Joe Biden has zero.”

“Joe was gonna lose Tennessee a few weeks ago because they have no campaign here, really. People who would normally be regular, rank-and-file Yellow Dog Democrats were flirting heavily with Mike Bloomberg.” Hale’s own mother, he said, had called him to say that she’d never heard of “this Mike Bloomberg guy” but now that she had, she liked him.

But after Bloomberg’s disastrous performances in two debates, and Biden’s landslide victory in South Carolina, another southern state whose demographics and values more closely resemble those of Tennessee than do Iowa’s or New Hampshire’s, Hale thought it might be possible for Biden to pull off a win here despite making no effort to win. “It isn’t a lack of caring,” Hale said. “The reality was, there weren’t resources for smaller states in the South.”

There was little polling to support Hale’s optimism about Biden. “It went from the campaign thinking they had it in the bag, to thinking there was no reason to invest in it because it was a lost hope, to having this last-minute surge,” Hale said in the hours before polls closed. “If the last two weeks had not happened, Mike Bloomberg would be running away with it. But if Joe Biden wins here tonight, it will not be because of any proactive efforts that happened here on the ground. It’s just because we love Joe.”

The polls opened an hour late in Tennessee due to the state of emergency, and they remained open until 10 p.m. — the result of a lawsuit filed on behalf of several campaigns and the Democratic Party, ensuring residents 12 hours in which to cast a vote. Though, not everybody was able to get to the polls. A man working at a gas station told me he couldn’t leave to go vote. He didn’t like any of the candidates anyway, he said, and he didn’t think it would matter who won, since none of them were likely to beat Trump. He said that Trump had created jobs, and it’s tough to campaign against someone who creates jobs.

So many people showed up to vote at a high school I visited that you could hardly find a place to park. Inside the gymnasium, the line of voters snaked around the basketball court. “East Nashville isn’t letting a tornado stop us from participating in our democracy. What’s your excuse?,” one resident said on Twitter. “A tornado won’t stop me from voting,” said another. “This is what democracy looks like.”

Photo: Lauren Matarazzo

It also looks like a billionaire trying and failing to buy an election. In the end, the millions Bloomberg spent here were for nothing. He came in a distant third place. Besides Tennessee, Biden also won Texas, Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Arkansas, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Maine, and Massachusetts.

The Biden campaign’s theory that South Carolina would transform the trajectory of the primary in his favor proved true. The question for Democrats is what happens now. Biden began the race in 2019 as the front-runner and now, after a year of downturns and defeats and uncertainty, has regained that status after a heady 96 hours. His campaign was built on the promise that he could restore America to the way it was before Donald Trump. Everything could be rebuilt and somehow returned to the way it had been. But the people here who voted for Biden on that premise — and that promise — certainly understand nothing can ever quite be the way it was before.

In Tennessee, Voting for Biden Amid the Wreckage