Tennessee voters who identify as MAGA Republicans hope Trump prevails over challengers, setting stage for showdown in choosing party’s 2024 presidential nominee
Tennessee Republicans favor Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over former President Donald Trump to be the party’s presidential nominee in 2024 by double digits, according to the latest statewide Vanderbilt Poll. Among the registered Republicans who were interviewed, DeSantis leads Trump 54 percent to 41 percent in a head-to-head matchup.
The survey of 1,180 registered Tennessee voters was conducted between Nov. 8 and Nov. 28, with a margin of error of ± 3.4 percentage points. The statewide poll is co-directed by 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 and professor of political science. Detailed results and methods can be found at vu.edu/poll.
The poll focused on the public’s thinking about elected officials, the 2024 election, abortion, Tennessee’s economy, education and climate change, among other topics.
Registered voters in Tennessee, it appears, are uninterested in a repeat of the 2020 presidential election, Geer and Clinton said. Among all registered voters surveyed, only 36 percent want Trump to run for U.S. president—an 8 percent decline from the December 2021 Vanderbilt Poll. Only 22 percent think President Joe Biden should run for re-election.
Perhaps of greatest relevance are the divisions emerging among Republicans in the GOP stronghold of Tennessee. When asked, 34 percent of Republicans say they are “more of a supporter of the Make America Great Again, or MAGA, movement” than they are a “supporter of the Republican Party.” That so many Republicans think of themselves as more MAGA than classic supporters of the GOP has important implications, given the differences between MAGA and non-MAGA Republicans.
Consider the following: In a potential matchup between Trump and DeSantis, 60 percent of MAGA Republicans back Trump. Yet 66 percent of non-MAGA Republicans back DeSantis. This is a stark difference, according to the pollsters.
But it would be premature to think Trump cannot win the Republican nomination—the fact that he has a solid base of supporters among the MAGA vote could be a path to the nomination. Republicans use a winner-take-all system for allocating primaries. If the anti-Trump vote is split among two or three candidates, the former president could have the support of enough delegates to capture the nomination.
“Trump’s support has waned, but there’s still a clear path for Trump to win the nomination,” Geer said. “The differences between MAGA Republicans and non-MAGA Republicans also pose a problem for Republicans as they try to govern over the next two years.”
Consider the following: Only 21 percent of MAGA Republicans agree with the statement “Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential general election.” By contrast, 51 percent of non-MAGA Republicans believe Biden won.
Less than 40 percent of MAGA Republicans thought the 2022 midterm elections were counted fairly and accurately nationwide, compared to 62 percent of non-MAGA Republicans, 71 percent of Independents and 96 percent of Democrats.
Shifting public attitudes on abortion
Another key set of findings in the survey focused on public sentiment around access to abortion. The Supreme Court ruling in June in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization cleared the way for states to reshape abortion law in the U.S., nearly 50 years after the court protected abortion rights at the federal level in the Roe v. Wade decision.
The decision has sparked ongoing debate about the abortion issue—including in Tennessee, which recently revised its laws in response to the Dobbs decision. Despite this attention, however, few registered voters in Tennessee are aware of the current restrictions on abortion adopted by the state government. When asked to identify the statement that is closest to the current law in Tennessee, only 19 percent were able to identify it. Meanwhile, 36 percent said they did not know enough to say, and the remainder think the law is something different than what it is.
In regard to views about abortion, 75 percent think abortion should be legal in Tennessee if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. Support for such exceptions is strong regardless of partisanship—62 percent of Republicans, 78 percent of Independents and 93 percent of Democrats agree. That said, there is also strong support for abortion restrictions after 15 weeks, under some conditions. For this question, 69 percent of registered voters—including 88 percent of Republicans, 47 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Independents—think “abortion should be illegal after 15 weeks except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother.”
Further, there is evidence that opinions toward abortion in Tennessean have changed, in part due to the Dobbs decision. In 2022, 37 percent of those surveyed said they were pro-choice, up 15 points from 2012, when only 22 percent favored pro-choice policies. The support for a pro-life position dropped from 46 percent in 2012 to 36 percent in 2022.
Clinton said the three most notable themes from the 2022 poll results are suggestive of the challenges Republicans are facing—challenges consistent with their underwhelming performance in the 2022 midterms.
“I do think that this particular poll, unlike a lot of previous polls, speaks to some problems that are going on nationally,” Clinton said. “Our results show that the Republican Party is clearly divided, and Republicans are trying to figure out who they are and which issues they want to prioritize. We saw hints of this in the debates over the issue of abortion in various states and by comparing how well Republican statewide candidates did depending on how MAGA they were.
“Our poll reveals just how stark some of these differences are,” Clinton added. “While this is not as much of an issue in Tennessee, where the Republican party is extremely strong, the splits we find in Tennessee Republicans have important implications for how Republicans react nationally and in other states as they look forward to running the House of Representatives and trying to take back the White House in 2024.”
ABOUT THE VANDERBILT 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.