Research News

Vanderbilt Poll-Tennessee: Immigration issue indicative of growing divide between mainstream Republicans, Tea Party

Interest in immigration issues increased in Tennessee following the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, especially for members of the Tea Party.

“[rquote]The Paris attacks appear to have made immigration a much more important issue for Tea Party members[/rquote], underscoring a growing divide between them and more traditional Republicans,” said John Geer, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of Political Science at Vanderbilt University and co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll-Tennessee.

New results from the latest Vanderbilt Poll-Tennessee show the number of voters who consider immigration a top priority nearly doubled since May – from 7 percent to 13 percent. For registered voters in the state, immigration remains the fourth highest priority, behind the economy (31 percent), education (24 percent) and health care (17 percent). But that was not the case for Tea Party members; it was the second most important issue for them (26 percent) with the economy first (30 percent). Tea Party members exhibited other differences. When asked if they felt angry at the government, 39 percent of Tea Party members said “Yes,” compared to 26 percent of Republicans. Overall, 23 percent of Tennesseans were angry. These data are in response to a new poll question about voters’ feelings toward the political system.

The Vanderbilt Poll-Tennessee went into the field Nov. 11, just two days before the Paris attacks, and ended Nov. 23. Pollsters questioned 1,013 registered voters. The survey has a percentage of error of plus or minus 3.9 percent.

Religious Freedom

A large majority of Tennesseans (75 percent) believe Muslims who want to practice their religion peacefully should have the right to do so. “Tennesseans, like all Americans, strongly support religious freedom. Not even the Paris attacks changed this commitment,” Geer said.

At the same time, a sizeable majority also believe government workers should be required to enforce a law, even if it conflicts with religious or personal points of view, reflecting what the researchers call “the pragmatic side of Tennesseans.”

“We are a nation of laws,” Geer said. “Some politicians can applaud people like (Kentucky Court Clerk) Kim Davis, but citizens of this state want laws enforced.”

Presidential favorites

Asked to select their favorite Democratic candidate for president, poll respondents put Hillary Clinton ahead with 48 percent of the vote, trailed by Bernie Sanders at 28 percent. On the Republican side, Donald Trump led Ben Carson by 4 percentage points, (29 to 25 percent). Jeb Bush trailed Ted Cruz (14 percent) and Marco Rubio (12 percent) with 6 percent.

But the presidential nomination process on the Republican side remains quite fluid, according to the researchers.

Gas taxes

Voters were open to raising taxes on gasoline to fund road and bridge maintenance. A substantial majority of 66 percent said they would be willing to pay a 2-cent increase in gas tax, with only 33 percent unwilling. Even a 15-cent tax garnered 46 percent approval. The researchers suggested that this increase might be thought of as the “the gas tax threshold.”

“When you ask if they support an increase in sales tax on gasoline and don’t specify an amount, people are going to assume the increase will be high and they respond negatively,” said Josh Clinton, Abby and Jon Winkelried Professor of Political Science and co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll-Tennessee. “But if you give them a tangible amount, you could get quite a bit of support for an increase. We thought voters might respond negatively either way, so we were surprised by the results, which indicate policymakers could get quite a bit of support for even a 10-cent increase in the gas tax.”

Same sex marriage

Support for same-sex marriage has increased among Tennesseans over the last year from 23 percent to 32 percent.

Gun control

A majority of Tennessee voters said gun control laws should remain the same, while 40 percent wished it would become harder in the state to buy a gun. Just 5 percent wanted it to be easier to purchase a gun.

Right to Die

Tennesseans are open to the entreaties of right-to-die activists, with 59 percent agreeing that doctors should be allowed to help patients painlessly end their life if they have a disease that cannot be cured and are living in pain. Thirty-five percent are opposed to it.

Additional highlights

Tennesseans’ attitudes remained stable in some areas. For example, Gov. Bill Haslam continues to enjoy a high approval rating, and a majority of Tennesseans (64 percent) remain supportive of health care expansion in the state through Insure Tennessee.

Poll Information

The Vanderbilt Poll-Tennessee was launched by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University in 2011 to be a non-partisan and scientifically based reading of public opinion within Tennessee. Telephone interviews are conducted through both landlines and cell phones and statistical results are weighted to achieve an accurate demographic representation.

To help identify the most important issues and ensure questions avoid ideological and partisan bias, questions are formulated with the help of the Vanderbilt University Poll board. Current members of the board are:

  • Samar Ali, attorney at Bone McAllester Norton PLLC and co-founder of the Lodestone Advisory Group;
  • Charles W. Bone, attorney and chairman of Bone McAllester Norton PLLC;
  • José González, instructor of entrepreneurship and management, Belmont University;
  • Tom Ingram, political strategist with The Ingram Group;
  • Roy M. Neel, senior adviser to former Vice President Al Gore;
  • Bill Phillips, government relations consultant and former Nashville deputy mayor;
  • Bill Purcell, former Nashville mayor and partner at Farmer Purcell White & Lassiter PLLC;
  • Lisa Quigley, chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper;
  • Anne Russell, special counsel at Adams and Reese LLP;
  • Chip Saltsman, former chief of staff for U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann and political strategist;
  • Jamie Woodson, president and CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).