When it comes to their views on public policy, Tennesseans are more moderate than many expect, according to the latest Vanderbilt Poll.
These findings, in general, suggest that Tennessee in 2018 could prove to be an important bellwether for the state’s and country’s future—a claim that is consistent with Doug Jones’ surprise win in the Alabama special election on Tuesday, said John Geer, Gertrude S. Conaway Professor of Political Science.
“What’s fascinating about the 2018 elections is that you’re going to witness a battle on two fronts,” Geer said. “One is whether the Democrats can be viable statewide in light of the Dean and Bredesen candidacies. Might we see the Democrats win the governorship, the open Senate seat, or both? The other battle is for the soul of the Republican Party. Is the Tennessee GOP still the party of Howard Baker or has it become the party of Steve Bannon?”
Vanderbilt’s Center sponsors the Vanderbilt Poll for the Study of Democratic Institutions, which Geer co-directs with Josh Clinton, Abby and Jon Winkelreid professor of political science. Between Nov. 16-Dec. 5, the poll surveyed a represent-ative sample of 1,013 registered Tennessee voters on a variety of state and national issues. The poll’s margin of error is ±3.7.
“Conventional wisdom says that Tennessee is a ruby-red state, but the data from the Vanderbilt Poll does not always square with such a claim,” Geer said. “When we asked Tennesseans to characterize their fellow citizens’ ideological leanings, 62% believe their fellow Tennesseans to be conservative or very conservative. Yet when you ask these same people to rate their own ideological leanings, just 48% describe them-selves that way.”
In other words, there is a 14-point gap between perception and reality. In fact, the state is evenly balanced between conservatives (48%) and those who identify as moderate (31%) or liberal (17%).
“There is a dramatic over-estimation of how conservative the state is,” said Clinton. “I think that’s because the ones with the loudest voices also tend to have the most extreme views and this distorts perceptions of where the state is. No doubt, it’s a conservative state, but it’s less conservative than citizens think.”
“These findings speak to why polling is important. It gives voice to those quieter and more moderate people in the state,” Geer said. “And now one can see why someone like Phil Bredesen or Karl Dean could win statewide, because they can appeal to the liberals and the moderates and the many business conservatives across the state.”
Using the same rating method above, Tennesseans describe Gov. Bill Haslam almost exactly the same way they describe themselves, which may explain why, with a 63% approval rating, he remains the most popular politician in the state by a considerable margin.
“Haslam is very representative of what the state is,” Geer said.
Approval of President Donald Trump, Sen. Bob Corker, and Sen. Lamar Alexander all dropped a few points since the last Vanderbilt Poll in May, to 48%, 47% and 44%, respectively.
The drop in approval ratings for Alexander and Corker reflect in large part the decline in approval of Congress. Even more notably, President Trump has lost substantial support in Tennessee, dropping 12 points over the last year. Over the same time period, the percentage of Tennesseans who say they believe President Trump is changing Washington for the better has fallen 24 points to 35%, while the percentage who believes Trump is changing things for the worse has risen 16 points. In addition, just 39% of Tennesseans believe the president tells the truth most of the time.
“The broader point is that, for a state he won so handily a year ago, Trump is not overwhelmingly popular here,” said Geer. This finding comports with the upset win in the Alabama Senate race, where Trump campaigned heavily for Roy Moore.
Tennesseans remain deeply dissatisfied with Washington: 63% say they are frustrated, and another 21% say they are angry with the federal government. After a brief post-election honeymoon period, Tennesseans’ overall approval of Congress has returned to its typically anemic 23%.
“What’s really interesting here is that the fall in approval is entirely driven by Republican dissatisfaction with the Republican-led Congress,” Clinton said. “Whereas nearly 50% of Republicans approved of Congress in November of 2016, now only a third of them approve of the job they are doing.”
Two-thirds of Tennesseans blame both parties for the dysfunction they perceive in government, and 76% say they want their representatives to reach across the aisle in order to get things done—even if it means compromising on some of their own values and priorities.
And that’s a preference that transcends ideology. “There are problems in the nation and the state, and people want problem-solvers and solutions, not bomb-throwers and partisan rhetoric,” Clinton said.