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Vanderbilt Poll: TN voters more divided, less concerned about COVID-19 and less confident in lawmakers

Governor Bill Lee's approval rating fell to 55% in the fall 2021 Vanderbilt survey gauging Tennessee voters, a 10% drop compared to May.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Vanderbilt University released the findings of its bi-yearly statewide poll, which gauged a randomly selected group of Tennessee voters about their feelings on a variety of state and national political topics.

Roughly 1,000 people participated in the phone survey between Nov. 16 and Dec. 6. The participants were selected and called randomly from a pre-procured list of registered voter landline and cell phone numbers across the state, and the questions Vanderbilt researchers submitted were administered by the research firm SSRS.

Close to 50,000 were called to obtain the polling sample, but the vast majority of people did not answer. Roughly 68% of the participants who did pick up answered via cell phone, and 32% answered via land line. Most of the people who participated (37%) were from East Tennessee, with 24% from Metro Nashville, 20% from elsewhere in Middle Tennessee, and 19% from West Tennessee.

Roughly 36% of callers identified as a Republican voter, 22% identified as Democrat, 27% said identified as independent, and 14% said they were "something else." Of the independent/other voters, 52% said the thought they were closer to Republicans, 30% said they thought they were closer to Democrats, and 18% said they did not see themselves close to either. 

Vanderbilt said the margin of error for the poll was +/- 3.7 percentage points, with some of the questions were only asked to half of participants. 

You can read the full survey results at this link. You can also find the full methodology of the survey at this link.

The Findings

Overall, people who answered the phone said they had less faith in politicians and said the state is being further divided, expressing less satisfaction and confidence in how state lawmakers have handled the COVID-19 pandemic. They also expressed less concern about COVID-19 in general compared to the past two polls.

The Vanderbilt survey said it found both Democrat and Republican voters widely disapproved of a new state law prohibiting private companies from requiring employees to be vaccinated or to provide proof of vaccination. 500 people were asked the question, and 47% said they disapproved. 37% said they approved, and 15% said they didn't know enough to say.

“It’s a sign that the legislature, in this particular case, was out of touch with the broader public,” said John Geer, a professor of political science. “These results in some ways should not be a surprise, since the public usually supports giving private businesses the latitude to pursue policies they think are best for the company. That is a foundation of capitalism.”'

The Tennessee Legislature saw its overall approval fall by 6% and its disapproval rise by 6% from the May 2021 poll. Researchers said 53% of the Tennesseans polled approved of the job state lawmakers are doing, with 35% disapproving. 

Researchers said 55% of voters approved of Governor Lee's job performance — which was a 10% drop from the previous survey conducted in May 2021. Lee's approval was the lowest on record for a Tennessee governor since at least 2012, and the number who disapproved was at 38% -- the highest since at least 2012. 

The survey said the majority of the drop was from Democrat voters, but he also saw 5% fewer Republican voters also said they approved of him. 

Despite the comparatively lower approval, Vanderbilt researchers said Lee would likely not be in danger of losing reelection should he seek it. They said he continues to poll well among his base, but opinions of him are also becoming more polarized.

Researchers believe the shift in voter attitudes in this poll signified a shift to more party-polarized opinions across the state. In the past, Tennessee governors generally held onto a fair level of support from voters outside their parties, which led to historically higher approval ratings.

At the same time, Tennessee voters who were polled said they had less confidence in national leaders. President Joe Biden's approval ratings fell 7% among Democrats to 85%. Across the board, 32% of Tennesseans polled approved of how Biden has been doing as President, with 65% disapproving.

Voters in other parties also said they had less confidence in President Biden. Just 3% of Republicans said they approved of his administration while 32% of independent voters approved of him.

A new question added to the poll this fall gauged half of the people sampled about their opinions of others who identify as Democrat or Republican, adding some particularly charged language to the answers to intentionally gauge the severity of polarization across the state within different voter groups.

The question asked if respondents agreed with the statement that "Democrats/Republicans are a danger to our country and must be defeated at any cost" as well as "Democrats/Republicans have mistaken ideas, but are not a danger to our country," and "Both parties have mistaken ideas."

Of the 504 people asked, 38% said they felt both parties had "mistaken ideas" and left it at that. 34% said they felt "Democrats are a danger to our country" and 15% said "Republicans are a danger to our country." When looking at party lines, the poll said 63% of Republicans said they viewed Democrat voters as "dangerous," while 48% of Democrats said they saw Republican voters similarly.

“Those are massive numbers about how Democrats and Republicans are thinking of each other, not just as having different political views, but as a danger to our country. And that is a really concerning aspect,” said Josh Clinton, a co-director of the poll. “That’s not a very healthy set of attitudes to have about our country, and it’s not a very particularly optimistic way of thinking forward.”

Only 6% of voters polled said they believed the country was more united than divided on the most pressing issues. That number was around 11% of voters in May. However, when it came to the state of Tennessee specifically, 44% said they felt the state was united on the most pressing issues, which was 43% back in May. 

The poll revealed some areas where voters still had common ground. Around 65% of both Democrats and Republicans said the current economic climate was good, and around 60% of both support public hearings over redrawing new congressional district maps in Tennessee ahead of their approval in 2022.

One of the questions gauged half of the people polled specifically about how they felt about Metro Nashville redistricting, which has become a hot-button issue not only in Tennessee but elsewhere in the country due to the higher potential to shift state and federal lawmaker seats depending on how voters are dispersed in the new district maps.

While state lawmakers are considering splitting Nashville into two districts based on the latest U.S. Census results and state redistricting policies, the majority of voters in both parties said they either support keeping Nashville as one district or are indifferent to the idea. 14% opposed keeping Nashville a single district, with 35% supporting the idea and 39% neither supporting or opposing it. Across party lines, Democrats showed significantly more support for keeping Nashville a single district at 47%, compared to 30% of Republicans.

Since May, voters wrangled with issues related to income and employment, as well as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The economy" took the top spot in this poll with 29%. 

The most popular topic people strongly agreed upon was public education. Around 91% of the voters polled said having access to high-quality K-12 public education was important to them.

The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have largely fallen off as the greatest topic of concern for most Tennesseans. About 500 voters were asked to rank their top priority for the government to address, and 9% said it was the COVID-19 pandemic. During the Dec. 2020 poll, COVID-19 was by far the topic of greatest concern for most voters polled at 37%."

When half of the sample was specifically asked about how concerned they were about COVID-19 infecting them or their family, the majority of 33% said they were "not too worried." 28% said they were "not worried at all," 24% said they were "somewhat worried," and 10% said they were "very worried." These responses were much different from the ones received a year ago in December 2020 -- where 32% said they were "very worried" and 34% said they were "somewhat worried."

Around 50% of all Tennesseans are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 as of December 2021, with 57% of the state having at least one dose according to the Tennessee Department of Health. The people who responded to this study do not align with that state statistics, though. Of the roughly 1,000 people polled, 72% said they had received the COVID-19 vaccine, with 24% saying they do not plan to get one. These numbers were much higher than the flu shot, with 41% saying they had gotten one this year and 36% saying they did not plan to get one.

Since the last Vanderbilt survey, state lawmakers also passed several anti-LGBTQ+ bills requiring bathroom labels and restricting the sports teams that transgender students can play on. Social issues like these haven't been specifically gauged in these Vanderbilt polls, though, outside a couple years in 2012 and 2013 where "gay rights" was listed as an example of a social issue in questions about where state government priorities should be. 

The poll also asked voters about their opinions of former president Donald Trump. During his administration, he saw around a 60% approval rating in Tennessee. Now, around 44% of voters polled said they want him to run again in 2024. Around a fifth of Republican voters polled said they wanted him to stay in Florida, with Vanderbilt researchers saying it may be evidence his base might be looking at other options for 2024.

“We do see a shift down in support for Trump and that cannot be viewed as good news for him,” Geer said.

You can read more about the survey online.

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