CORRECTION: Any earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Applied Social Research Lab Director Morgan Kidd.
NASHVILLE — A new poll finds Tennesseans continue to favor Republican candidates in the GOP-leaning state while also revealing close partisan divisions on a coronavirus-related political issue: whether to let all voters cast ballots by mail in 2020 elections.
The April 22 to May 1 Tennessee Poll was conducted by the Applied Social Research Lab at East Tennessee State University. Pollsters reached 618 adults in the multi-issue survey with a slightly smaller subset of 536 people who said they intended to vote or were likely to vote for president.
Of those, 53% said they favored President Donald Trump, who in 2016 won Tennessee with 60.7% of the vote. Thirty-six percent said they backed Democrat Joe Biden. Trump continues to enjoy staunch backing among Republicans with 94% supporting his re-election. Just 4% of Democrats said they supported the president.
Among independents, pollsters said support is "much more complicated" with independents favoring Trump over Biden by a 10 percentage point margin of 37% to 27%. And 22% of independents said they will vote for another candidate, while 14% remain undecided.
Trump's highest overall support was at 65% in traditionally Republican East Tennessee with just 27% of those surveyed stating they would vote for Biden — a 38 percentage point margin.
The margin of error for the overall 618-person sample was plus or minus 3.9% while the margin of error for statewide presidential and political questions posed to the 536 subset was plus or minus 4.2%. Margins of error grow for smaller groups.
In this year's race to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a plurality of 43% said they wanted another Republican elected. Twenty-six percent favored a Democratic candidate, while another 26% said the party of Alexander's successor didn't matter.
On a generic ballot of U.S. House contests in Tennessee, poll respondents favored Republican candidates to Democratic candidates by a 13 percentage point margin. Republicans currently occupy seven of the state's nine congressional seats.
The survey's authors are ETSU's Applied Social Research Lab Director Dr. Kelly Foster, an associate professor in the university's Department of Sociology and Anthropology, ASRL Assistant Director Morgan Kidd and Dr. Rich Clark, a political professor at Castleton University in Vermont.
Mail-in ballots, COVID-19
While a recent Gallup Poll found 64% of American adults favor "allowing all voters to vote by mail or absentee ballot" in this year's presidential election due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sentiment was far more divided among Tennesseans, the ETSU poll found.
The issue has been raging at the state level where Tennessee Secretary of State Tre Hargett, a Republican, and other GOP officials have refused to accede to demands by Democrats and others demanding an expansion of the ability to vote absentee this year given the push for social distancing to stop the spread of the virus. A federal lawsuit been filed.
Tennessee Poll split its sample into two randomly assigned groups who received two differently phrased questions related to voting by mail.
The question posed to Group One was on whether it should be mandatory: "Do you favor or oppose requiring voting by mail in the 2020 general election?"
The question put to Group Two laid it out as an option: "Do you think every Tennessean should have the option of voting by mail in the next general election, or should vote-by-mail options only be given to those who are physically unable to vote in person?"
What ETSU found was 43% of adult Tennesseans favored requiring vote-by-mail, while 44% favored the option to vote-by-mail. But 44% oppose requiring vote-by-mail while 48% oppose the option to vote by mail if voters also have the option to cast their ballot in person.
The partisan differences were larger. In Group 1, 43% of adult Tennesseans favored requiring vote-by-mail but just 29% of Republicans supported it compared to the 40% of independents and 63% of Democrats who did.
But 44% opposed requiring vote-by mail: 61% of Republicans said no to it compared to 26% of independents and 33% of Democrats.
"What this tells me," Foster said, "is that Tennesseans' opinions on absentee voting are fairly fixed" and "their opinions largely fall along partisan lines as this issue has become somewhat of a political background as of lately."
Portions of ETSU's survey released last week focused on the COVID-19 pandemic. It found that when asked what asked what their biggest concern is about the coronavirus, the top three most frequently mentioned responses were fear for themselves or a loved one getting the virus (33%), general concern over public health as well as the impact on the health system (16%) and impact on the economy (13%).
Six percent cited concerns about states and cities opening up too early or a potential second wave. Five percent cited concerns over "being locked down/blow out of proportion/government abuse of power."
The pollsters said "only a small percentage of Tennesseans feel either the federal or state government went too far in their actions to slow the spread of the virus" with 10% saying the federal government has gone too far while 10% said the state has.
Foster said the responses to COVID-19 questions such as health, vaccines, education, fears and opening the economy left her "stunned at the degree to which so many of these responses differ by political party.
"We are in a time of a global pandemic - a time when we should be able to trust our leaders in government, public health, when we should be able to come together and move to keep ourselves healthy, utilizing the best minds our country produces. We are known the world over for producing some of the best minds in the world and yet we are fighting them based on our politics."
Contact Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.