Vanderbilt poll: Most Tennesseans favor exemptions in state abortion law for rape, incest; Republican voters like DeSantis

Then-President Donald Trump stands behind gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis at a rally in Pensacola, Fla., in 2018. (AP Photo/Butch Dill, File)

NASHVILLE -- Three out of four Tennesseans are telling pollsters they favor exceptions for victims of rape and incest in Tennessee's strict abortion law, which banned the procedure even in those circumstances.

The finding comes in a new Vanderbilt University poll released Wednesday. The survey of 1,180 registered Tennessee voters was conducted between Nov. 8 and Nov. 24 and has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.4 percentage points.

Tennessee Republican lawmakers in 2019 approved one of the nation's strictest anti-abortion bills, making no exceptions for any abortion -- even to save the life of the mother.

Although physicians are offered an opportunity to defend themselves if they perform the procedure to save the mother's life, the burden of proof is on them, instead of on the prosecution, if they are charged with the felony offense.

The semi-annual Vanderbilt survey also found state Republicans favor Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over former President Donald Trump to be the party's presidential nominee in 2024 by double digits. DeSantis lead Trump 54% to 41% in a head-to-head matchup.

The statewide poll is co-directed by John Geer, the dean of Vanderbilt's College of Arts and Science and professor of political science, and Josh Clinton, professor of political science. The survey focused on the public's thinking about elected officials, the 2024 election, abortion, Tennessee's economy, education and climate change, among other topics.

Top issues for respondents were education and inflation, which tied at 19%. Ranking second was the economy at 16%, followed by infrastructure at 12% and then abortion, which was a top concern among 10% of respondents. Last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion in most instances. Tennessee Republicans had readied a "trigger" law in advance that automatically implemented whatever restrictions the nation's high court allowed.

Health care was another top concern at 8%.


Geer and Clinton said Tennessee registered voters appear uninterested in a repeat of the 2020 president election. Among all registered voters surveyed, 36% are interested in another presidential bid by Trump. That's an 8% decline from the Vanderbilt poll a year ago. Twenty-two percent think President Joe Biden should run for re-election.

Thirty-four percent of Republican respondents said 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, according to Geer and Clinton.

In a potential matchup between Trump and DeSantis, 60% of MAGA Republicans back Trump, while 66% of non-MAGA Republicans back DeSantis. This is a significant difference, according to the pollsters.

The professors say it's premature to rule out Trump winning the Republican nomination, citing his solid base of supporters among the MAGA vote, which could provide him 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, they said.

"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."


Despite the U.S. Supreme Court's 6-3 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization in June, the poll found few registered voters are aware of Tennessee's new restrictions, with 19% able to identify the provisions correctly. Another 36% said they did not know enough to say, and the rest think the law is different from what it actually is, according to Geer and Clinton.

With regard to their views on the issue, 75% of poll respondents said they think abortion should be legal in Tennessee if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. That transcends partisanship, the pollster said, noting 62% of Republicans, 78% of independents and 93% of Democrats agree.

The survey also found there is strong support for abortion restrictions after 15 weeks, under some conditions. Sixty-nine percent of registered voters -- including 88% of Republicans, 47% of Democrats and 62% of independents -- agree that "abortion should be illegal after 15 weeks except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother."

Opinions toward abortion in Tennessee appear to have changed, in part due to the Dobbs decision. In 2022, 37% of those surveyed said they were "pro-choice," up 15 points from 2012, when 22% favored pro-choice policies. Support for a "pro-life" position dropped from 46% in 2012 to 36% in 2022.

A poll conducted by the Chattanooga Times Free Press during the November election of Hamilton County voters outside polling stations found about 56% of voters agreeing with the statement that decisions about an abortion should be made by a woman and her doctor without government involvement. Almost 29% said it should be illegal except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the mother. About 9% said abortion is murder and should be outlawed in all circumstances.


Other survey findings show Tennesseans are divided 50/50 on whether they are worried about not having enough money to pay for emergencies like medical care or car repairs in the event of a serious accident.

And asked whether they are moderately or very worried about not having money to pay normal monthly bills like housing, food and transportation, one third of respondents said they had concerns. Another 67% said they were not too worried or not worried at all.

But asked about whether they were moderately or very worried about not having enough in savings for things like retirement or their own or their child's education, just over half -- 54% -- said they had concerns. Forty-six percent said they weren't too worried or not worried at all.


Pollsters asked a question about school vouchers in two different ways.

They asked half of the poll respondents whether they would support or oppose the state using a portion of public school funding to create a program for education in which every parent in Tennessee would be offered a voucher to pay for private schools.

Fifty percent said no to school vouchers, which currently are limited to Metro Nashville and Shelby County. Proponents are looking to expand the program to other larger counties. That includes Hamilton County, where state Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, has introduced legislation to allow vouchers for lower-income students. Forty-six percent of respondents in Vanderbilt's statewide survey said they supported expanding vouchers to every parent.

Pollsters then asked the remaining half of respondents in the statewide survey whether they would support using a portion of public school funding to create a program for education under which every parent in underperforming school districts in Tennessee would be given a voucher to help pay for private school.

Forty-nine percent of respondents said no, while 47% said they would support that.

Another education question asked what grade respondents would give to public schools in their district. The first question focused on preschools, kindergartens and elementary schools.

Forty-eight percent rated their public schools either an A or B with 13% awarding an A grade and 35% a B grade. Twenty-nine percent awarded their local public schools a C grade, while 13% gave their schools a D and 3% an F.


Clinton said the three most notable themes from the 2022 poll results are suggestive of the challenges Republicans are facing, 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."

Contact Andy Sher at Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.