Divisive party politics continue to dominate attitudes among Tennessee residents on key social issues, including the state’s response to COVID-19, willingness to get vaccinated and questions about whether the 2020 presidential election was ‘stolen,’ according to the latest Vanderbilt University poll.
Despite the continued polarization, the results of the spring poll did show some glimmers of unity among Tennesseans on topics such as infrastructure upgrades and pride as Americans.
With the mass rollout of vaccines and the CDC’s relaxation of public masking and social restrictions, 34% of registered Tennessee Republicans said they want state government to prioritize the economy (nine percent Democrat support). Conversely, 34% of Democrats want state government to focus on COVID-19 (eight percent Republican support). Overall, 74% of Republicans agreed with the statement that the pandemic “is largely over and things should go back to the way they were,” while only 14% of Democrats did.
When asked about the COVID-19 vaccine, more than a third of Republicans (37%) and 30% of Independents said they do not plan to get the vaccine. Sixty percent of Republicans and 94% of Democrats reported they have already been vaccinated or that they plan to be.
On questions about the 2020 U.S. presidential election, many poll respondents remained wary of the outcome. Though the election results have been certified by all states and territories, a large majority of Republican respondents (71%) and 30% of Independents continued to agree with the statement that “Joe Biden stole the 2020 Presidential election.”
“This is a remarkable number—that the vast majority of a political party feels the other party is illegitimate, despite the lack of any evidence,” said Josh Clinton, Abby and Jon Winkelried chair and professor of political science. “This survey question has not been previously relevant in American politics, so going forward this will continue to be a concern when evaluating how this will impact future elections around the country.”
When respondents were asked if they approved of Biden’s American Jobs Plan that would use $2.3 trillion to upgrade the country’s infrastructure over the next 10 years, including improving roads and bridges, electric grids, drinking water and access to broadband internet, only 29% of Republicans approved, and 96% of Democrats approved. But when the question was posed without naming the plan or President Biden, Republican approval for infrastructure doubled to 59%, while the same percentage of Democrats approved (96%).
“The fact that there is broad support for these economic issues when partisan indicators are omitted shows that political context can really affect people’s reactions to important policy issues, depending on how the issues are framed,” Clinton said.
Support for the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which provides low-income families with a $3,600 credit per child for children age five or younger and a $3,000 credit per child for children age six to 17, did not vary whether Biden’s name or the name of the plan was mentioned. When Biden was mentioned, Democratic support was 91% and Republican support was 48%. When not mentioned, Democratic support decreased slightly to 89% while Republican support increased slightly to 51%. These shifts, however, are not statistically significant.
“Unlike infrastructure, there is across-the-board support for increasing funding for childcare in the country. This may reflect that both Democratic and Republican leaders have offered plans to increase financial support for parents,” Clinton said.
“As 2021 reaches the halfway point, pundits and candidates alike look toward the 2022 midterm elections,” Clinton said. “Based on these poll results, Democrats’ campaign messages are most likely to rally around economic policies to attempt to build support for their candidates, but Republicans will likely campaign on social issues to rally their base and appeal to independent voters.”
“The public is influenced more and more by ideology and less by evidence, which is concerning,” said John Geer, Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science and co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll. “Voters have increasing anger and resentment for the opposite party, oftentimes fueled by the politicians that represent them. It will be interesting to see how issues of policy and improved quality of life play out in forthcoming campaigns, especially on the federal level.”
The poll did find some signs of statewide unity, however. Democrats and Republicans largely expressed their pride as Americans and most report the enduring strength of friendships with people from other political parties. Poll results showed that 97% of Republicans, 92% of Democrats and 93% of Independents agreed with the statement that they were proud to be an American. An overwhelming majority (84%) say they are good friends with someone from the opposite party. Only 14% of Republicans, 23% of Democrats and 14% of Independents have lost friendships or other relationships due to political differences.
“We have always been a divided nation, certainly more so now than usual. But there are some reasons for optimism, since we see that most people are united when it comes to essential values like American identity and maintaining friendships,” Geer said. “These kinds of social connections are fundamental in so many ways.”