In a sign that malaise over rising inflation and stressors related to pandemic recovery could be influencing Tennesseans’ attitudes toward elected leaders, support for President Joe Biden and Gov. Bill Lee has dropped among registered voters, according to the most recent statewide Vanderbilt Poll.
Poll co-directors John Geer, Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science and professor of political science, and Josh Clinton, Abby and Jon Winkelried Professor of Political Science, say the new findings align with a national trend of waning support for Biden, even among Democrats and independent voters. Tennessee voters also are less inclined to see the merit of another presidential run by Donald Trump.
“There’s a general dissatisfaction with the direction of the country right now, and we pick that up in a lot of different ways—whether it be in the national poll or in how people are viewing local leaders,” Geer said. “One of the themes our latest poll shows is that here in Tennessee, there is a declining appetite to have a replay of the 2020 presidential election in 2024.”
Among Democrats, 79 percent of those polled said they approve of Biden’s performance, while last year 92 percent voiced support for him. Only 31 percent of all those polled approved of Biden’s performance—down from 39 percent last year around this time—and a mere 25 percent said they hope Biden runs for reelection.
And just 38 percent of those polled said they want Trump to run for U.S. president in 2024, a drop from 44 percent in December 2021. While Republicans are much more supportive of a 2024 Trump campaign than Democrats are, they, too, showed declining interest—68 percent supported the idea, down 11 points from December 2021.
Frustrated voters in a volatile world
While Tennessee voters are largely unhappy with the nation’s leadership, Gov. Bill Lee remains popular with constituents, though his approval rating did drop slightly. Lee earned a 56 percent approval from those polled, down from last year’s level of support but similar to results from December 2021. When breaking down attitudes by party, 80 percent of Republicans said they’d reelect Lee, compared with only 7 percent of Democrats.
Tennesseans also see a U.S. economy increasingly in trouble. Only 27 percent believe the U.S. economy is in good shape, down significantly from 47 percent of those polled last year who said the economy was “very good” or “fairly good.”
Tennesseans offer a more favorable assessment, though, of the state’s economy, with 64 percent responding the economy is “very good” or “fairly good” right now.
Attitudes about criminal justice reform show some bipartisan support
The latest poll asked voters some new questions about criminal justice reform. Seventy percent of registered voters in Tennessee think that the criminal justice system either needs “a complete overhaul” or “major changes,” nationally and in Tennessee.
While Democrats are slightly more likely to hold these beliefs (82 percent), a majority of Republicans (63 percent) also express a strong desire for criminal justice reform.
When questioned about whether it’s preferable to give convicted murderers the death penalty or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, 53 percent of those surveyed say life imprisonment is the preferable option. Thirty-seven percent responded that the death penalty is the better of the two choices. While there are some partisan differences—a slight majority of Republicans prefer the death penalty (52 percent) and 66 percent of Democrats prefer life imprisonment with absolutely no possibility of parole—the partisan divisions are not as great as those found on other issues.
Those insights come as Lee last month paused executions in Tennessee through 2022 after issuing a reprieve to inmate Oscar Franklin Smith due to a technical oversight in the lethal injection process.
Responses reflect a change in attitude since respondents answered this question in spring 2011, when 55 percent supported the death penalty over life in prison for convicted murderers.
Furthermore, 72 percent of those surveyed say they support the use of taxpayer dollars for rehabilitation programs such as mental health care or addiction treatment for people convicted of crimes. Support for rehabilitation is strongest among Democrats (84 percent) and independents (77 percent), but 58 percent of Republicans also support such use of taxpayer funds.
Abortion a contentious issue
Abortion is at the forefront of national conversation as a draft Supreme Court opinion was leaked that suggests the conservative majority may overturn a court case that ruled that people have a constitutional right to obtain an abortion.
The draft majority opinion, written by conservative Justice Samuel Alito, attacks the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision as incorrectly decided. A final opinion is expected to be published in late June.
Among Tennesseans surveyed, 48 percent identified as pro-choice, and 50 percent identified as pro-life. Overall, 36 percent of respondents said abortion should be legal in all cases. Seventy percent of Democrats polled favored abortion being legal, while only 8 percent of Republicans prefer pro-choice legislation.
Overall, while there is a strong partisan divide on this issue, only a minority of Tennesseans, including Republicans, want to make all abortion illegal. There is strong support (80 percent of respondents) for having abortion be either completely legal or legal under some conditions, such as in cases of rape and incest and when the health of the mother is at stake.
Some areas of the poll showed polarization between parties. Others found Tennesseans unified across several issues. More findings include:
Causes of polarization: Political parties appear to agree that social media is one of the root causes of the nation’s current divide.
Banned books: 65 percent of Republicans say that public schools should have a committee of parents and community members to review and remove books they find offensive. Only 25 percent of Democrats say that is appropriate.
Fear of COVID: Tennesseans’ fear of COVID is declining.
Scientific discovery: 47 percent of Tennesseans say they support state and federal governments supporting scientific discovery. Factoring in people who support “a moderate amount of scientific discovery,” the number rises to 75 percent.
Health care: Nearly two-thirds of the public opposes restricting access to health care for transgendered citizens. By contrast, Tennesseans strongly indicate that they think students should be required to play on school athletic teams that match their gender at the time of birth.
About the Vanderbilt Poll
The survey of 1,000 adults who are registered voters living in Tennessee was conducted between April 26 and May 14, 2022, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.8 percentage points. The statewide poll is conducted annually by Vanderbilt University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. In 2015, the Vanderbilt Poll became a charter member of the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s Transparency Initiative. More detailed results and methodology can be found at vu.edu/poll.