Vanderbilt Poll: Majority of Tennessee voters now pro-choice, gender gap developing on key issues

Tennessee state flag flying at the Capitol

Things to know:

  • The majority of Tennessee registered voters consider themselves definitely or somewhat pro-choice, including 93 percent of Democrats, 54 percent of Independents and 30 percent of non-MAGA Republicans 
  • Differing attitudes between men and women on key state issues could prove influential on public policy in Tennessee and appears to be part of potentially significant national trend 
  • IVF and proposed gun control legislation have bipartisan approval 
  • Sixty percent of Tennessee voters favor legalizing marijuana for recreational use 

The semiannual, statewide Vanderbilt Poll showed in its most recent survey that slightly more than half of the state’s voters support a woman’s right to an abortion, that there is significant bipartisan support of IVF procedures as well as modest gun control legislation, and that views about many state and national issues differ significantly by gender. 

“This latest Vanderbilt Poll suggests that there continues to be misalignment between the actions of the state legislature and a majority of registered voters on a number of key policies,” said John Geer, co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll, senior advisor to Chancellor Daniel Diermeier, professor of political science and holder of a Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Chair. “And we also see evidence of a substantial difference by gender in attitudes on important issues that could be part of a larger, more influential national trend.”   

The Vanderbilt University survey of 1,003 Tennessee registered voters was conducted in English from April 26 to May 9, 2024. 

Decade-long trend toward pro-choice continues 

The poll revealed that current state abortion laws, which are some of the strictest in the country, are not in line with an overall majority of voters. Tennessee is one of 14 states that have banned nearly all abortions. The state legislature adopted an explicit medical exemption to the law in August 2023. 

The Vanderbilt Poll revealed that 52 percent of registered voters consider themselves “definitely” or “somewhat” pro-choice, supporting a woman’s right to choose. These results are part of a statewide shift toward a pro-choice majority. In the May 2014 poll, 45 percent of Tennesseans considered themselves “definitely” or “somewhat” pro-choice, and in the May 2022 poll, 48 percent of Tennesseans thought of themselves as definitely or somewhat pro-choice. 

“There is clear evidence that Tennessee is a ‘pro-exception’ state, with voters accepting of the right to choice in cases such as rape, incest, the health of a mother or fetal viability, but now the state has also moved into pro-choice camp,” Geer said.  

“Republicans remain very much pro-life,” Geer added, “but we do see a slight shift across the state to a pro-choice stance, which likely is a reaction to the Dobbs decision in 2022. Many Tennesseans considered themselves pro-life until the Dobbs case overturned Roe v. Wade.” 

The differences across parties are clear. Among Democrats, 93 percent are pro-choice. Independents stand at 54 percent. Fifty-seven percent of all women, across political identities, identify as pro-choice. In contrast, a large majority of non-MAGA Republicans (69 percent) and MAGA Republicans (78 percent) view themselves as pro-life. 

“Since the fall 2022 poll, we have asked respondents who label themselves as Republican if they identify more with the Republican Party or the MAGA movement,” said Vanderbilt Poll Co-Director Josh Clinton, who holds the Abby and Jon Winkelried Chair at Vanderbilt and is a professor of political science. “That divide between MAGA and non-MAGA Republicans often illuminates significant differences, even within largely conservative labels such as ‘pro-life.’” 

Another reproductive issue—in vitro fertilization—reflected strong bipartisan agreement. The long-used technique to help those struggling with infertility has garnered more attention since the Alabama Supreme Court ruled embryos created through IVF should be treated as children.  

Eighty-two percent of Tennessee registered voters said that IVF should be legal. There were strong majorities regardless of political affiliation, leading with Democrats (94 percent), followed by Independents (85 percent), then non-MAGA Republicans (80 percent) and MAGA Republicans (69 percent). 

“This widespread support should give the state legislature and the governor a reason to be more active on the IVF issue,” Geer said. “It’s clear that voters, regardless of party affiliation, want this option to remain legal.” 

The overarching support for the legality of IVF may be buoyed by the lack of strong views about whether the technique has moral implications. More than half of all respondents (58 percent) believe IVF is not a moral issue, with 29 percent believing it is morally acceptable and 10 percent saying they think it is morally wrong. Along those lines, a clear majority (58 percent) of respondents report thinking IVF is acceptable to allow same-sex parents to have a child, and 65 percent of respondents say unused embryos should not be considered children. 

Gender divide on many issues 

In addition to the gender gap that exists around positions on abortion, the Vanderbilt Poll revealed several other notable variations between men and women on high profile issues such as gun laws, vaccines, Medicaid expansion, state official approval and the presidential election. These gaps could be politically impactful, locally and nationally. 

“This poll shows a nearly 20-point gap between the views of men and women on many major policy issues, particularly on public health, that we have not seen before,” Clinton said. “The differences we see among registered voters on issues related to reproductive issues, gun restrictions, the expansion of Medicaid and willingness to get a vaccine for serious illnesses suggests that differences in opinion by gender may have important implications for both voting and policy decisions, in our state and across the country.” 

 Looking toward the general election, former President Donald Trump is the choice of 47 percent of Tennessee voters, with current President Joe Biden at 29 percent. Men choose Trump at a rate 11 points higher than women, while women choose Biden at a rate 12 points higher than men. 

 “While there is no reason to doubt that Trump will win the solid Republican state of Tennessee regardless of what happens in the current trials based on the latest Vanderbilt Poll,” Clinton said, “what seems more important is how the gender differences we are finding in Tennessee may impact the presidential race in swing states such as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—where large differences in policy views between men and women could be more decisive.”

Although Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R.-Tenn, polls clearly ahead of her challenger, State Rep. Gloria Johnson, D.-Knoxville, for the upcoming U.S. Senate election (51 percent to 40 percent, respectively), the Vanderbilt Poll shows a significant difference between men and women voters. While men heavily favor the incumbent senator, women prefer Johnson over Blackburn 49 percent to 43 percent.   

 A poll question about Medicaid expansion also uncovered some stark differences between men’s and women’s attitudes. The majority of state voters (62 percent) are in favor of Medicaid expansion, with women (70 percent) significantly stronger in their support than men (54 percent).  

Gun issues see both agreement and polarization 

There is consistent bipartisan agreement on some specific gun legislation and gun reform issues across the state, but attitudes toward arming teachers at school are sharply split across party lines. 

“There continues to be bipartisan support for modest gun control in the state beyond the policies that the state legislature has decided to enact,” Clinton said. “While allowing teachers to carry weapons is an area where opinion is very much divided, there are other policies we asked about receiving strong bipartisan support that were left on the table—including restricting access to individuals with a significant risk of harming themselves or others.” 

More than three-quarters (76 percent) of Tennesseans are in favor of passing laws that temporarily restrict access to guns for individuals who are at high risk of harming themselves or others, in order to reduce the risk of gun-related violence. Democrats (90 percent) are overwhelmingly in favor of these types of laws, with a majority of non-MAGA Republicans (75 percent), Independents (73 percent) and MAGA Republicans (64 percent) in agreement. Across all political affiliations, 81 percent of women strongly agree with these measures, compared with 70 percent of men. 

Views on allowing public school teachers and school staff in Tennessee to carry concealed handguns on school grounds are, overall, split evenly (47 percent support, 47 percent oppose). MAGA Republicans (77 percent) and non-MAGA Republicans (71 percent) skew heavily in support of the option of armed teachers, while only 11 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of Independents are in favor.   

Current Tennessee law allows individuals to carry a handgun, openly or concealed, without a permit. Seventy-one percent of voters do not favor extending state law to allow people to similarly carry long guns—such as hunting rifles. However, the poll reveals a wide gap in support by political identification, with 48 percent of MAGA Republicans in support but only 2 percent of Democrats in support. A 20-point gap exists between the support shown by women (17 percent) and men (37 percent). 

Perceptions of illness drive vaccine adoption 

Vanderbilt Poll results indicate Tennesseans are much less willing to receive “medically recommended” vaccines than they are to receive vaccines either for “serious illnesses”—such as pneumonia, meningitis and shingles—or diseases uncommon in the United States, such as malaria.  

Seventy-six percent of respondents say they are extremely, very or somewhat likely to take a vaccine to prevent a serious illness. Democrats are most likely to get vaccinated in these cases (92 percent), but there also are majorities within Independents (74 percent), non-MAGA Republicans (70 percent) and MAGA Republicans (54 percent) at least somewhat willing to be vaccinated against serious illness. The survey uncovers a 19-point division among men (42 percent) and women (61 percent) who are extremely or very likely to take vaccines for serious illness. 

When respondents were asked about their willingness to get all “medically necessary” vaccinations, willingness to get vaccinated drops by 12 points to 64 percent. Democrats remain very open to all vaccines, with 92 percent reporting they would get medically recommended vaccinations. In contrast, nearly 70 percent of Republicans indicate they are not likely or completely unwilling to get these vaccines. 

Democracy under attack 

The Vanderbilt Poll results show that nearly two-thirds (63 percent) of Tennesseans agree that the United States democracy is under attack. There is less agreement about the source of that threat. 

Republicans perceive the Democratic Party as most responsible for an assault on our democracy.  Republicans also view China as a serious threat.   

 For Democrats, the Republican Party stands out as the biggest perceived threat to democracy.  But rather than China, Democrats viewed Russia as a bigger threat.  

Other notable findings 

  • Overall, Tennessee registered voters, regardless of whether they have school-age children, are very evenly split on school vouchers that would use state funds to help pay tuition at private or religious schools. When asked if they approve of the concept, 45 percent of respondents are in favor of vouchers, 46 percent oppose them and 9 percent say they neither support nor oppose them. If school vouchers became available, 49 percent of voters are very or somewhat likely to use them, and 50 percent say they would not. MAGA Republicans (71 percent) are, by a wide margin, the group most likely to use the voucher, while only 26 percent of Democrats would take advantage of the option.

“These results show that vouchers remain a controversial issue,” Geer said. “It is a complex and complicated topic,” he added, “that makes the issue difficult to measure in a poll.”  

  • More than one-third of Tennessee voters (34 percent), including almost half of MAGA Republicans (47 percent), report that they believe the federal government releases chemicals and related substances into the atmosphere to control the weather, evidenced by “chemtrails” in the sky. 

The Vanderbilt Poll indicates that 43 percent of state voters think it is at least somewhat likely that FBI operatives organized and intentionally encouraged the attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Nearly a quarter of MAGA Republicans (23 percent) believe it is extremely likely that the FBI was an agitator in these events, while more than half of Democrats (54 percent) think it is not at all likely there was FBI involvement. 

“These results speak to the current political situation where Democrats and Republicans are seeing the world in very different ways,” Clinton said. “When partisans differ so dramatically about basic facts about the world, this makes it harder for voters to come together on policy. There are opportunities to exploit certain information sources for political gain, but hopefully politicians and public officials choose to be responsible and point people toward accurate, reliable information so that we can have debates about policy and not about what facts are true.” 

  • Gov. Bill Lee’s overall approval rating by state voters stands at 54 percent, with MAGA Republicans (83 percent) and non-MAGA Republicans (81 percent) registering the most support and Democrats offering the least at 18 percent. The governor’s overall approval percentage has dipped noticeably since a high of 65 percent approval in May 2021. Democrats’ approval of Lee is 16 percent. 

Less than half (46 percent) of voters approve of the job that the Tennessee legislature is doing. This contrasts noticeably with May 2020 Vanderbilt Poll results, which showed a 60 percent approval rating. 

“Because of recent actions by the Tennessee legislature, overall approval of the assembly and the governor remain low, by historical standards,” Geer said. “State government appears to be paying a bit of a penalty for pursuing policies that are out of touch with Tennesseans.” 

  • Sixty percent of Tennessee voters are in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational use.