Lee popular as he enters office—health care top priority for Tennesseans, says Vanderbilt Poll

Tennessee Governor-elect Bill Lee

Gov.-elect Bill Lee will enter office with a strong favorability rating of 57%, with only 22% of registered voters holding an unfavorable view, according to the latest Vanderbilt University Poll. The findings also suggest Lee will also find support for some of his initiatives, including expanding vocational training in the state. Meanwhile, health care has surpassed the economy and education for the first time in the poll’s history as Tennesseans’ chief priority for state government.

“Overall, we see support for an agenda that could work for our incoming governor,” said John Geer, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt professor of political science and co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll. “Education and the economy are strong priorities, as well as immigration and infrastructure.”

“The one worry Bill Lee must deal with is health care, which has risen in importance to Tennesseans,” said poll co-director Josh Clinton, Abby and Jon Winkelried professor of political science. “Although the two are related, health care now takes precedence above the economy to voters here.”

The poll of 1,004 demographically representative registered voters was conducted Nov. 19-Dec. 6, covering a variety of state and national issues. The margin of error is ±4.0 and full findings and methodology may be found at vu.edu/poll

Highlights include:
Health Care
Thirty percent of Tennesseans chose health care out of a list of issues as the state’s top priority and another 20% recommended it as the state’s second-highest priority.

Opioid addiction remains a serious concern; 86% of Tennesseans characterize it as an emergency or a major problem, while 43% say they personally know someone affected by it.

Medicaid expansion, a key provision of the Affordable Care Act, remains quite popular in the state, with 66% in favor. This puts the state legislature’s and the Governor-elect’s position against it at odds with public opinion, Geer said, noting that this is not unique to Tennessee, and that other states have let the people decide. “There were three Republican-dominated states (Idaho, Nebraska and Utah) with the same dynamic that voted via referendum for Medicaid expansion in the last election,” he said.

Though respondents indicated a variety of preferences regarding the future of the U.S. health care system, making it hard to know what exactly voters might want, there appears to be little appetite for a return to pre-ACA days: 21% would like to see a Republican plan replace the ACA, 32% want to expand the ACA and 23% want a Medicare-for-all-type system.

Education follows close on health care’s heels in Tennesseans’ minds, with 21% saying it should be the state’s top priority and another 23% selecting it as the state’s second-highest priority.

“There’s a real opportunity here for Gov.-elect Lee to advance his support for more vocational education as he enters office,” said Geer. Fifty-seven percent of Tennesseans say it’s more important for public schools to provide vocational training, while just 33% say preparing students for college is more important.

Of those supporting vocational education, 71% would support a tax increase to fund those programs, while 59% would support redirecting existing resources to it. “That people are prepared to support an increase in taxes to make more vocational training available underscores the importance of this issue to voters,” said Clinton.

Consistent with previous polls, 63% of Tennesseans say children of undocumented immigrants should be eligible for in-state tuition at state colleges and universities.

Vouchers, by contrast, remain a big question mark in Tennessee: A full 43% say they don’t know enough to have a clear opinion about them, while just 24% say they support them.

Approval, favorability ratings
President Trump has a 52% approval rating in the state, in line with previous polls. Outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam remains the most popular politician in the state, with a 61% approval rating, while Senators Alexander and Corker stand at 48% and 45%, respectively—also in line with previous polling.

Congress remains highly unpopular, with just 26% approval, while the state legislature enjoys a healthy 54% approval rating.

By comparison to Gov.-elect Bill Lee, Senator-elect Marsha Blackburn will arrive in Washington with much less public support. Only 45% of Tennesseans had a favorable view of her, with 50% holding an unfavorable view. Geer noted that this is particularly unusual because the candidate she beat, Phil Bredesen, received a favorability rating of 54%, with 34% unfavorable—suggesting many Tennesseans voted for her despite holding more favorable views of her opponent.

“Perhaps the Kavanaugh confirmation gave many Republicans and Independents enough reason to vote for Blackburn, despite their reservations,” said Geer.