Tennessee Voting Experts Say Taylor Swift Might Actually Turn Their State Blue
Taylor Swift is speaking now. Will it matter come November?
Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/TAS18/Getty Images for TAS.
What’s perhaps most shocking about Taylor Swift breaking her career-long commitment to her apolitical image by posting a 392-word Instagram endorsement of two Tennessee Democrats is that Donald Trump, for once, didn't have much to say about it. Not a “Sad!” nor a “Hater!” or even a “Loser!”
“Let’s say that I like Taylor’s music about 25 percent less now,” the president responded in uncharacteristically tepid “Shake It Off” form, when asked about Swift’s remarks Tuesday. In the past, Trump has rage-tweeted at celebrity critics like Lebron James, Kathy Griffin and Modern Family executive producer Danny Zuker, who’s not even a celebrity. So why didn't he let Swift have it after she said that Republican Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn’s voting record “appalls and terrifies me” in the midst of an extremely close Senate race?
Maybe Trump is afraid of the pop star. Swift's post, endorsing incumbent Tennessee Democrat Rep. Jim Cooper and, more significantly, former Tennessee Governor and current Senate candidate Phil Bredesen, has already led to a spike in voter registration and genuine consideration that Swift could help flip Tennessee, a state that’s burning red.
“Trump is being smart about it,” Kate Tucker, a Nashville singer-songwriter and co-founder and creative director of BriteHeart, an artist-driven, Tennessee-based, non-partisan civic advocacy organization with eyes trained on voter registration efforts since forming in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. “Part of [Swift’s] base is his base—he doesn’t want to alienate them.”
Swift has nearly 30 million more Twitter followers than Trump, and 112 million Instagram followers. The world at large could like Swift and her music 25 percent less, and she’d still have more social media followers than Donald Trump. But before this week Swift has avoided leveraging that platform into political power, even as her liberal fans called on her to speak out.
But anyone wondering whether Swift—who started her career as a teen in Nashville during the shut-up-and-sing era, when Music Row put multi-platinum-sellers the Dixie Chicks out to pasture for criticizing President George W. Bush and the Iraq war in 2003—might be a closet conservative breathed a sigh of relief, or had their bubble burst when the singer fashioned her own October surprise on social media.
“I was pretty shocked,” recalled Marissa R. Moss, a Nashville-based journalist who covers the intersection of the Nashville music industry and politics for publications like Billboard and Rolling Stone. “Beggars can’t be choosers, I’m glad that she did it, but her support would have helped, I think, [if she’d offered it] earlier. But it’s not her job to do that.”
There have been many celebrity-driven efforts over the years to get young people to vote, to mixed results at best. But Swift's single Instagram post may have had an impact. According to BuzzFeed News, Vote.org, the site Swift directed fans to in her post, reported 65,000 new registrations in the 24-hour period following Swift’s post. With many state registration deadlines coming up, and many organizations pushing people to register, you can't link that surge to Swift alone. But Vote.org noted 2,144 new voters in Tennessee alone, compared to 2,811 registrations for the entire month of September. In what’s shaping up to be a nail-biter, every-vote-counts Senate election, Swift’s endorsement could conceivably flip the seat in November, which might be the bump the Democrats need to retake all of Congress.
“[Swift] was super smart,” Tucker said. “She held her cards close and she waited until it mattered. … Those people who want to say ‘Shut up and sing!’—she’s been doing a good job of that for a long time, and now she’s decided it’s time to say something.”
It’s tough to say how much of the uptick in Tennessee voter registration really should be attributed to Swift’s signal boost, and—between names potentially purged from rolls, Tennessee voter ID laws, and other first-time lapses—how many of those newly registered voters will actually turn out remains to be seen.
Tucker noted, however, that whatever piece of that pie belongs to Swift, those Vote.org numbers only represent voters that registered through that site. Tucker personally witnessed an out-the-door-stretching line of registration-form holders queued up early Monday morning outside the Davidson County Election Commission office in Downtown Nashville, where phones were ringing off the hook.
“I don’t think it’s just because of Taylor Swift that all these people are registering,” she said. “I also think it’s the energy and the impact of [community activist] groups shifting the culture incrementally for at least the last two years.”
As Tennessee Democratic Party Chair Mary Mancini observed, “We have more people volunteering than I’ve seen in decades. Where once we had 35 people at the state capitol protesting, last session there were 500. If we have a protest in front of [Senator] Bob Corker’s office or [Senator] Lamar Alexander’s office, you might have gotten 100 people in the past, now you’re getting 2,500 to 5,000.
“A lot of it is the environment that these young people are having their political awakening in,” Mancini continued. “With each thing that happens, young people are understanding that politics affects them.”
The 28-year-old Swift, it seems, is among those who’ve been galvanized and activated by the times.
“In the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions,” she wrote on Instagram, “but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now.”
Swift’s statement came one day after wrapping the US leg of her Reputation stadium tour, effectively avoiding any potential blowback in the form of angry protestors or empty seats. And it also came two days after Bredesen rankled his base by releasing a statement supporting the controversial confirmation of alleged sexual predator Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court. It’s a move many saw as Bredesen pandering to moderate conservatives, or conservative Democrats, in the wake of a CBS poll that showed the former Governor trailing Blackburn by eight points. No polls conducted post-Swift endorsement have been released at press time.
“Bredesen probably did that in a calculated way,” Tucker hazards, “thinking Millennials don’t show up [to the polls], but the swing voters do, so I’m going to have to make a political move. That’s true in Tennessee. … Maybe [Swift] activated a base that he didn’t anticipate having. And that’s my hope for our state—that maybe she’s tapping into something that none of us have quite figured out how to do, even though we’ve put a lot of time and energy into it.”
As to be expected in today’s sharply polarized political climate, Swift’s endorsement of Democratic candidates inspired ire in the conservative Twitterverse from Blackburn supporters, like veteran Tennessee Republican and current congressional candidate Tim Burchett, who spent Monday afternoon trolling Swift with dad jokes. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee embarrassed himself by tweeting that Swift “has every right to be political but it won’t impact election [sic] unless we allow 13 yr old girls to vote.”
Swift is more famous and has had more mainstream success than any of her Nashville peers, but other country stars have also been making their left-of-center political views known—with an audience that is more diverse than ever, country music isn't just a red state genre anymore. “I think that’s what’s giving some of these artists a little bit of confidence [to be more vocal],” Moss said of country up-and-comers like Maren Morris and Brothers Osborne, or even contemporary superstars like Eric Church, who’ve either supported Democratic candidates or criticized conservative sacred cows like the NRA without commercial repercussions.
Tucker sees an artist like Swift mobilizing voters as a big win for a state in which less than half of eligible voters turned up to the polls in 2016, the same year a Pew Research Center Study ranked Tennessee 50th in voter turnout and 40th in voter registration. “We’re one of the most apathetic states when it comes to representation,” she said..
“It’s a great move she’s made,” Tucker added, “and I hope it makes an impact in the midterms. And if it doesn’t, I hope she’s got a wildcard up her sleeve for 2020.”
UPDATE 10/11/18: In a previous version of this story, BriteHeart was noted as a non-profit. They are actually a public benefit corporation.
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