For its Oct. 30 meeting, the Tullahoma Noon Rotary Club invited MTSU Political Science professor Kent Syler as its guest speaker to give insight to the 2020 presidential election.
Syler was introduced to rotary members by fellow member Jim Woodard, who has been a friend of Syler’s since their days at Franklin County High School.
As Syler began speaking with the membership, he introduced his guest John Scarbrough. Syler said Scarbrough taught history at Franklin County High School when he attended and was a major influence on himself and Woodard.
Syler took a moment to thank Scarbrough for being an inspiration to him.
“It’s been a long road starting at Franklin County High School by a teacher who made learning fun,” Syler said.
Syler has worked in Tennessee politics for more than three decades.
His career began as a campaign “sound truck” driver in 1978. By 1984, he managed Bart Gordon’s first campaign for congress and his reelection campaigns in ‘94 and ‘96.
He served as Gordon’s chief of staff from 1985 until Gordon’s retirement in 2011. During his career, he became one of the state’s most respected political strategists and analysts. He has also worked on other campaigns ranging from city council to U.S. Senate.
He serves as a political analyst for WSMV-TV, News 4 in Nashville and is frequently quoted in both state and national news media.
Syler began teaching at MTSU’s Department of Political Science & International Relations in 2002 and serves as Special Projects Coordinator for MTSU’s Albert Gore Research Center.
He also serves as an adjunct instructor at Motlow State Community College.
The 2020 election
When it comes to the 2020 presidential election, Syler told the Rotarians to wait until all the returns come in before deciding who wins the race – particularly in swing states.
“We really just don’t know until we see returns come in,” Syler said.
He added for one of his classes this semester, Syler had his students follow the election and turn in their predictions for the race.
He said based on their predictions, it looked like a Biden win, but noted if the results changed in a few states, then it would become a tight race.
Syler then opened the floor to questions. His mentor Scarbrough offered the first question to “prime the pump.”
Scarbrough asked since seven states will not count their ballots until after the election, when will they know who won the election?
Syler said it would depend how close it gets, and it could take several days to get a result.
“It could be a very, very interesting night and subsequent nights,” Syler said.
Tullahoma Mayor Ray Knowis asked if Syler anticipates the race seeing a marquee difference in results in early versus votes casted on Election Day, referring back to his win in the August 2020 election.
Syler said typically the early voting results in Tennessee are a good reflection on how the vote will turn out; however, he said this election would be different because of President Trump’s reluctance regarding mail-ballots.
“There’s a strong belief that Election Day will be much more Republican in that Republicans will be more active to vote on Election Day than to early vote,” Syler said.
He added that when returns starting coming in on Tuesday night, they will need to know if the numbers are from early voting, mail-in ballots or if they were cast on Election Day, because it could make a difference.
“When you start looking at returns you need to know what you’re looking at,” Syler said.
When asked if it was possible for the Electoral College to be eliminated, Syler said it will not happen.
He explained that the founding fathers created the Electoral College because they did not know if they could trust the general population in selecting a president, as they were afraid of mob rule.
“The electors were put in place to be knowledgeable people, so if the mob screwed things up they can overrule the mob,” Syler said.
He added that it would take a constitutional amendment to abolish the Electoral College, where 75% of the states would need to ratify it, which all the small states will not do as they have more to lose in representation.
“It’s not going to change, because the small states have the advantage and they’re not going to change it,” Syler said.
Beyond the election
Syler was asked what can be done about the polarization between the two parties.
He explained that deliberate gerrymandering did have a hand in helping to create the polarization; however, attacking party members for trying to talk to the other side to reach a compromise is not the way to go.
“We’ve got to allow our representatives to work with the other side and not punish them for it,” Syler said. “That would help a lot.”
State Rep. Rush Bricken asked Syler what caused the national media to take a political bias in recent years.
Syler stated he believes it is money and the constant need for ratings 24 hours a day. He said viewers seeking out media that can validate their beliefs is another reason.
“It’s our desire to go and search media that makes us feel better and confirms our opinion,” Syler said. “They basically are playing to us, they’re giving us what we want.”
Syler was then asked how the younger generation is getting their news nowadays. Syler said his students are getting their news from various news websites and not from cable news, as most of them do not have cable television.
Syler has been encouraging his students, as well as everyone else in the room, to look at various news sources to expand their knowledge and to give themselves a challenge.
“You’ve got to look at several sources,” Syler said. “Pick things that challenge your opinion and that’ll help you. That’s what I tell my students.”
The final question presented to Syler was whether or not his students are engaged with the current news cycle, which Syler confirmed they are.
He praised his current crop of students, who he said has a good mixture of political ideologies, and said they talk about what’s happening and what they are doing about it without conflict among each other.
“We haven’t had one conflict, and we’ve got people on all sides in probably the most contentious race in our lifetime, and they are handling it very well,” Syler said.