Former Mayor Megan Barry. Credit: Nashville Scene/Eric England

Early voting is less than two weeks out, and most polling shows that nearly half of Nashvillians remain undecided on who they want their next mayor to be. Three of Nashville’s past mayors are no different. 

“I’m still as undecided as most Nashvillians,” former mayor Bill Purcell tells the Banner. 

With election day one month away, the Banner spoke with three former Nashville mayors: Purcell (1999-2007), Megan Barry (2015-2018) and Karl Dean (2007-2015). The consensus was clear.

“I would say the election season has been remarkably lethargic,” says Purcell. Some have blamed the lack of energy on a disinterested voter population, but Purcell says that considering the number of Nashvillians who think the city is on the wrong track, which a recent vanderbilt poll put around 56 percent of the city, the onus is on the candidates to convince voters that they’re the one to turn the city around. “You can be confident that people are looking for answers and solutions and they’re looking to the candidates for that. The burden is on the candidates. And at this point, they have not made the case.”

Much of a campaign is about getting voters excited and passionate about a candidate. Rather than swaying a voter who has already made up their mind, a good campaign strategy is to appeal to Nashvillians who may not have been planning to vote. Voter turnout in the 2019 Metro General election was right around 23 percent of registered voters. In 2015, when Barry ran, that number was around 28 percent. She believes this year will likely fall on the lower end. 

“At the end of the day, I think it’s going to be a low voter turnout,” says Barry. She says at this point so late in the race, candidates need to focus on finding their niches and mobilizing as many of those voters as possible. “It’s going to be, can you get your voters out to the polls?”

Of course there has been no shortage of exposure for the candidates. There are campaign signs all over the city, multiple fundraising emails going out by the day and an unending list of forums where candidates have made their cases. But of the eight main candidates all vying to solve the same issues, much of the messaging begins to feel redundant, and even for the most trained eye, it can be difficult to distinguish one candidate from the other. 

“I think the nature of the campaign is you got to distinguish yourself and you got to say what you’re going to do that’s different,” says Dean. “And so there tends to be a little bit more of an emphasis on sort of challenging the status quo.”

Dean says that this type of messaging is common in a race where the incumbent is not seeking reelection. With Mayor John Cooper’s decision not to run again, the field quickly filled up, and candidates have taken every opportunity they can to talk about how they feel the city is moving in the wrong direction. But Dean says that the candidates who are going to secure the two runoff spots will likely need to begin to alter their messaging.

“I do think it is less about being critical of the status quo than about projecting the vision at this point,” says Dean. He believes that in order for candidates to secure the votes they need, which he believes will be around 20 percent to make the run off, they will need to show voters that they are the ones who have the right vision to lead Nashville into the future. 

While all three former mayors say they have enjoyed observing the campaigns, they’re all happy to be watching from the sidelines, rather than actually running campaigns themselves. 

“I love listening to all of them because I love listening to what they have to say, and I’m like any undecided voter,” says Barry. “I want to know what you stand for and then make a decision.”