Tennesseans politically divided on social and cultural issues but are united in their pride as Americans.
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 percent of registered Tennessee Republicans said they want state government to prioritize the economy (9 percent Democrat support). Conversely, 34 percent of Democrats want state government to focus on COVID-19 (8 percent Republican support). Overall, 74 percent 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 percent of Democrats did.
When asked about the COVID-19 vaccine, more than a third of Republicans (37 percent) and 30 percent of Independents said they do not plan to get the vaccine. Sixty percent of Republicans and 94 percent of Democrats reported they have already been vaccinated or that they plan to be.
“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. 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.” —Josh Clinton, professor of political science
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 percent) and 30 percent 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.”
Broad support for infrastructure upgrades
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 percent of Republicans approved, and 96 percent of Democrats approved. But when the question was posed without naming the plan or President Biden, Republican approval for infrastructure doubled to 59 percent, while the same percentage of Democrats approved (96 percent).
“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 5 or younger and a $3,000 credit per child for children age 6 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 percent and Republican support was 48 percent. When not mentioned, Democratic support decreased slightly to 89 percent while Republican support increased slightly to 51 percent. 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.
Implications for 2022 campaign
“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.”
- There are large differences in perceptions about racial inequality, with 90 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of Republicans agreeing with the statement that the legacy of slavery affects the position of Black people in American society today a great deal or a fair amount. Separately, 51 percent of Republicans and 18 percent of Democrats feel race relations in the U.S. are generally good.
- On gun safety laws, a majority of Republicans (57 percent) and a small minority of Democrats (8 percent) approve of making it legal for those 21 and over to carry a handgun without a permit.
- On withdrawing support or “canceling” public figures and companies after they have done or said something considered objectionable or offensive, 60 percent of Democrats and only 17 percent of Republicans agree on the practice.
- Compared to fall 2020, there was a large jump in the number of people who feel immigration is a priority for Tennessee state government—17 percent of Republicans and 2 percent of Democrats in this latest poll feel that immigration is a top priority, which is up from 2 percent and zero percent, respectively. Furthermore, 60 percent of Republicans and 9 percent of Democrats agree that “immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care.”
“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 public is influenced more and more by ideology and less by evidence, which is concerning. 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.” —John Geer, Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science
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 percent of Republicans, 92 percent of Democrats and 93 percent of Independents agreed with the statement that they were proud to be an American. An overwhelming majority (84 percent) say they are good friends with someone from the opposite party. Only 14 percent of Republicans, 23 percent of Democrats and 14 percent 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.”
When asked whether Tennesseans are united when it comes to the most pressing issues facing the state, 60 percent of Republicans, 24 percent of Democrats and 37 percent of Independents feel they are mostly or somewhat united. In contrast, when asked the same question about whether Americans are united, only 13 percent of Republicans, 11 percent of Democrats and 6 percent of Independents feel they are mostly or somewhat united.
About the Vanderbilt poll
The survey of 1,000 residents in Tennessee was conducted between May 3 and May 20, 2021, with a margin of error of ±3.7 percentage points. The statewide poll is conducted annually by Vanderbilt University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI), and is directed by Geer and Clinton. More detailed results and methods can be found at vu.edu/poll.
The Vanderbilt Poll is supported by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University. In 2015, the Vanderbilt Poll became a charter member of the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s Transparency Initiative.