Research News

Vanderbilt Poll: State legislature’s approval remains low; bipartisan support for abortion exceptions, gun safety laws; more

Poll also finds a felony conviction could hurt Trump, not likely to help Biden

  • If convicted of a felony, Trump’s support would decrease by eight points, but Biden wouldn’t pick up the support. Voters would choose a third-party candidate or stay home.
  • The public, regardless of partisanship, consistently support various gun reform—even among the strongest NRA supporters.
  • Strong bipartisan support exists for allowing abortions when the fetus is nonviable.

If the 2024 presidential election were held today, a felony conviction would cost former President Trump some votes, but not enough to make Tennessee a close contest in the 2024 presidential race. This shift could, however, cost Trump key battleground states.

If Trump were convicted of a felony by a jury before next November’s election, the latest Vanderbilt Poll of registered voters in Tennessee suggests he would suffer an eight-point decrease (45 percent to 37 percent) in support among Tennesseans. This drop includes a potentially pivotal 16-point negative change among voters who call themselves Independent, a nine-point dip (93 percent to 84 percent) among voters who self-identify as MAGA Republicans, and a 16-point swing (66 percent to 50 percent) in the support of non-MAGA Republicans.

Joshua Clinton, professor of political science
Josh Clinton
(Vanderbilt University)

“When we consider the narrow margins of victory in some of the battleground states we saw in 2020, the changes we find in the enthusiasm of support among Independents and non-MAGA Republicans suggest that a conviction could have a decisive effect in closely contested states,” said Josh Clinton, co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll, who holds the Abby and Jon Winkelried Chair at Vanderbilt and is a professor of political science. “These results are perhaps particularly compelling because they come from Tennessee—a reliably red state where you think voters may be least likely to change their opinion of Trump, given how much support he has in the state.”

For the Republican presidential primary, Trump is the overwhelming favorite among Republicans. When asked alongside all other Republican candidates, 56 percent of all Republican voters selected Trump as their preferred candidate—far more than the percentage choosing Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (20 percent) and former governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley (12 percent). Trump also emerges victorious in a head-to-head matchup with other Republicans—including a 46-point lead over a two-way race with Haley among Republican and Republican-leaning voters—confirming that he is the front-runner in the Republican primary.

Tennessee legislature goes its own way?

The Vanderbilt Poll also indicates that—on topics such as abortion, gun control and safety, and federal support for education—the Tennessee legislature adopts positions that differ considerably from the opinion of most registered voters, including Republicans, in Tennessee.

John G. Geer (Vanderbilt University)
John G. Geer
(Vanderbilt University)

The overall effect of this discrepancy is reflected in the historically low level of approval for the state legislature. Since achieving a 10-year high approval rating in May 2020, the approval of the state legislature has fallen by 18 percentage points. It stood at just 42 percent in this poll.

“The latest Vanderbilt Poll results show the Tennessee legislature often acts inconsistently with the public’s thinking, and this includes the opinions of most Republicans. Legislatures can act in ways that are out of step with the will of the people when one party dominates the chamber with a supermajority, as Republicans currently do in Tennessee,” said John Geer, co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll, senior advisor to Chancellor Daniel Diermeier and distinguished professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. “The failure of state legislatures to act in the interest of the public is not a Republican problem or Tennessee problem. In fact, over half of the 50 states have supermajorities in their state legislatures.

“It is problematic for states when general elections are not competitive and one party wields all of the power. Monopolies rarely work and certainly do not serve the interest of consumers—or, in this case, voters,” Geer added.

Tennessee and gun control

Gun control emerged earlier this year as a leading example of this undemocratic disconnect. After the mass shooting at The Covenant School in Nashville, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee called an August special legislative session to consider several gun control and safety laws and regulations. The special session did not accomplish much and led to substantial disagreement among Republican lawmakers about how best to proceed.

As the state approaches the new legislative session in January, the Vanderbilt Poll shows that “gun safety” has fallen as the most important priority among Tennesseans—from 16 percent in April, shortly after the Covenant shooting, to 10 percent today. The priority is much higher among Democrats than Republicans—23 percent of Democrats identify gun safety as the most important priority, but only 8 percent of Independents and less than 1 percent of Republicans do so. Republicans’ leading concern is the economy.

There were six questions in the Vanderbilt Poll about possible gun reforms. In each case, there was across-the-board support for these reforms. Consider that 76 percent of all respondents are somewhat or very supportive of laws requiring gun owners to ensure that firearms stored in vehicles are secured. This includes 72 percent of non-MAGA Republicans, 60 percent of MAGA Republicans and even 63 percent of respondents who strongly support the National Rifle Association.

Regardless of the specific proposal, support for these reforms was large and bipartisan. A full 80 percent of polled registered voters, including a majority of MAGA Republicans, non-MAGA Republicans and pro-NRA voters, report they are somewhat or very supportive of a background check requirement for buying firearms at gun shows. More than three-quarters of all respondents said they were in favor of restrictions on gun possession by high-risk individuals.

Some disagreement emerged when asking about raising the age at which an assault rifle may be purchased from 18 to 21. Although 64 percent of registered Tennessee voters overall were in favor of such a change—including 60 percent of non-MAGA Republicans—only 38 percent of voters who self-identify with the Make America Great Again movement support such a change.

In terms of the public’s opinion of the special legislative session held in the shadow of the worst school shooting in state history, the results of the Vanderbilt Poll reveal that much of the public was unaware of the proceedings. Democrats were far more likely to say that they followed the proceedings than Republicans and Independents. The special session, overall, did little to change public support for the state legislature.

Tennessee and abortion

Abortion is another issue where state law stands in contrast to the opinions of most Tennesseans.

Tennessee has one of the country’s strictest abortion bans, only recently allowing possible exemptions for medical professionals to use “reasonable medical judgment” in deciding whether the procedure can save the life of the pregnant patient or prevent major injury.

The Vanderbilt Poll indicates that more than three-quarters (77 percent) of Tennessee voters, across all political identities, support allowing the procedure in cases of incest or rape. This majority includes the support of nearly 65 percent of Republicans, regardless of their support for MAGA, and nearly 80 percent of Independents.

Another exception that’s drawing increased national attention is cases in which the fetus cannot survive outside the womb after delivery and physicians consider further medical treatment to be ineffective. The state of Texas is currently embroiled in such a controversy. In these cases that are now illegal under Tennessee law, 78 percent of state voters think abortion should be permitted. Support is strong and bipartisan, with 82 percent of Independents supporting this exception, 64 percent of Republicans and 96 percent of Democrats.

Notably, replacing the word “fetus” with “unborn child” had a negligible effect on sentiment, with 76 percent of poll participants still in favor of abortion as an option when posed with this version of the question.

“No matter how the issue is framed—whether you use the words ‘fetus’ or  ‘unborn child’—a majority of voters from both sides of the aisle support an exception for abortion in this tragic situation,” Geer said.


Education continues to be a top priority according to survey respondents. It has been among the top three concerns since the Vanderbilt Poll began in 2011.

Perhaps the most noteworthy efforts being considered by the state legislature relate to the potential rejection of federal education funding. When registered voters were asked about support for rejecting the $1.8 billion in federal education funding, a strong majority (58 percent) of registered voters indicated a desire to retain federal support and follow federal guidelines, including 95 percent of Democrats and 59 percent of Independents. Among Republicans, however, there was more support for the idea of rejecting federal money. Non-MAGA Republicans were nearly evenly split on the idea—43 percent rejecting the $1.8 billion—but MAGA Republicans were more enthusiastic, with 65 percent supporting a rejection of federal funds.

Additional insights

  • Eighty-two percent of registered voters in Tennessee think the public should be allowed to peacefully protest in person at the Tennessee State Capitol when state legislators are in session.
  • President Joe Biden’s approval is 27 percent—the lowest approval of any U.S. president in the nearly 13-year history of the Vanderbilt Poll.
  • Approval for Gov. Bill Lee is unchanged since April of this year at 53 percent. This is his lowest approval during this term, with his highest approval (65 percent) in May 2021.
  • Approval of the state legislature is 42 percent—the lowest approval ever—and slightly lower than the low of 43 percent approval recorded in April 2023.
  • Providing free meals at school to those in need garnered 95 percent support among all respondents.
  • Inflation has dropped as a desired top priority for the state to address. It was the top concern among Tennesseans in the November 2022 poll, standing at 19 percent. It ranked third in this survey, dropping to 11 percent.
  • Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who is running for re-election, holds a 41 percent overall approval rating in the state, comprised of 73 percent support among MAGA Republicans and 64 percent of non-MAGA Republicans. Her overall approval has dropped five points since the April 2023 poll. Her disapproval in the state stood at 46 percent. The Vanderbilt Poll results indicate a significant cushion for Blackburn in her re-election bid, with a 53 percent to 36 percent lead over Tennessee state Rep. Gloria Johnson, one of the announced candidates for the Democratic nomination, in overall voter candidate preference.
  • Republican U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty has a net positive approval in the state, with 38 percent approving and 34 percent disapproving of the job he is doing. Around 1 in 5 Tennesseans did not know enough to have an opinion about the senator. Given that he is a first-term senator and with all the attention paid to the state government, this number is not a huge surprise. Hagerty enjoys strong support among Republicans, with a 6-to-1 approval rate over disapproval.