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Gov. Bill Lee surveys tornado damage outside the fire department in Dresden, Tenn., Saturday, Dec. 11, 2021. (George Walker IV/The Tennessean via AP)

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee has lost ground with voters since May, according to a new Vanderbilt University poll released Thursday that suggests the 10-point drop may be linked to the Republican governor's signing into law a package of laws reining in public health measures amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 17,000 Tennesseans.

The survey of 1,002 registered voters, conducted Nov. 16-Dec. 6, found Tennesseans are much less worried about contracting COVID-19 and fairly evenly split over the state's 2020 abortion law, which seeks to ban the procedure as early as six weeks into pregnancy.

The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Lee, who took office in 2019 and is running for re-election in 2022, is the most popular Tennessee elected official covered by the survey. But the survey shows his job approval rating fell from 65% to 55% since May while those disapproving of him rose from 29% in May to 38% in December.

John Geer, a Vanderbilt political scientist and poll co-director, said the Republican governor's drop in standing may be the result of actions taken by himself and his fellow Republicans, who hold supermajorities in the General Assembly.

Geer noted that a number of Republicans surveyed joined with Democrats in expressing disapproval of a new state law passed in a special COVID-19 session in October and signed by Lee that bars private companies and other entities from requiring their workers to be vaccinated. It was among a raft of bills approved by Republicans along party lines.

"Interestingly, members of both parties thought that this bill was a bad idea," said Geer, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, in a news release. "These results in some ways should not be a surprise, since the public usually supports giving private businesses the latitude to pursue policies they think are best for the company. That is a foundation of capitalism."

Nearly half — 47% of voters surveyed — disapproved of the new law, while 37% supported it and 15% said they didn't know enough to say.

"[Lee] is not in danger of losing re-election or anything along that line," Geer said. "He's still sitting very strong with his base."

But he noted that his predecessor, Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, had strong support among Republicans while also enjoying support among independents and Democrats.

"We now see Gov. Lee with a very polarized set of opinions on him as governor. And that's a big, big change," Geer said.

Poll co-director Josh Clinton said in a Thursday telephone interview that Lee's overall standing among Republicans fell from 87% to 82% from May to December. Approval among Democrats fell from 28% to 16%. Lee's standing among independents, meanwhile, fell from 63% to 55%.

In an interview with 99.7 WWTN host Dan Mandis on Thursday, Lee said, "I don't wake up every day and look at what my approval ratings are," adding he "can't be too focused on polls."

"I think people, in general, are tired of talking about COVID," the governor said, noting the virus has surged and waned and resurged since the first known case became public in March 2020. And, Lee noted, just when people were thinking "happy days are here," another surge began.

"We're really in a different place today, though, than we were some time back, so I'm encouraged with where we're headed going forward. We do have a vaccine now, people are vaccinated. I think we may have a surge, it likely won't be as bad... We'll navigate through this, we know how to do this. We got a lot of other things to be focused on."

 

OTHER DIVISIONS

Tennesseans are also closely divided over the state's 2020 "fetal heartbeat" abortion law, which seeks to ban the procedure as early as six weeks into pregnancy. Forty-three percent of voters said they approve of the law, which is scheduled to be reheard by the full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals after it was blocked by a three-judge panel earlier this year.

While 42% of voters oppose the law, which Lee brought to GOP lawmakers after earlier attempts to pass legislation failed due to House and Senate Republicans' differences, another 14% said they didn't know enough about it to say.

In response to another survey question about a state law provision making it a crime for a doctor to perform an abortion after six weeks, 42% said they disapproved of that. Another 35% said they supported it, while 22% said they didn't know enough about it to say.

Other findings show job approval ratings for President Joe Biden, a Democrat who lost Tennessee to then-Republican President Donald Trump in the 2020 election by a 60.72% to 37.4% margin, have fallen since May.

In Vanderbilt's May poll, Biden had 39% job approval and 58% disapproval. In the December poll, Biden's approval dropped to 32% while disapproval rose to 65%, which pollsters attributed to losses among independent voters.

But Trump's Tennessee supporters aren't quite as enthusiastic about the former president as they once were, according to the poll. While he enjoyed about a 60% approval rating in Tennessee during his presidency, 44% of Tennesseans surveyed said they want Trump to run for president in 2024. One in five Republicans say they would prefer he not run.

"We do see a shift down in support for Trump, and that cannot be viewed as good news for him," Geer said. "It's certainly not terrible news, but it's suggestive."

Other poll findings show slippage of support for the Republican-dominated legislature with the latest figures showing Tennesseeans' approval at 53% and disapproval at 35%. That compares to 59% to 29% in May 2021.

Support among voters for U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., was at 48% to 40% with another 10% saying they don't know and 2% saying it's too early for them to say.

Freshman U.S. Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., was at 47% to 32%, with another 18% saying they don't know and another three percent saying it's too early to say.

 

PRIORITIES RANKED

In a departure from Vanderbilt surveys conducted in May 2021 and December 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic is no longer ranked at No. 1 or even No. 2 priority for the state by poll respondents. It fell to No. 5 in a tie with immigration, with 10% of respondents listing one or the other.

The economy was the top priority for 29% of survey respondents, while education was No. 2 with 20% citing that. Health care came in at third with 13% while infrastructure was the favorite for 10% of respondents. Coming in behind the coronavirus and immigration as a top issue were guns.

During the onset of the coronavirus, 37% of those surveyed by Vanderbilt saw it as the state's No. 1 concern. That fell to 16% in May.

 

MUTUAL DISTRUST

Poll co-director Josh Clinton, a political science professor at Vanderbilt, stated that even as partisan voters in Tennessee show less confidence in their leaders, Democrats and Republicans voiced distrust of each other.

Clinton said 63% of Tennessee Republicans said they believe Democrats are "dangerous" while 48% of Democrats said Republicans are the ones to be feared.

"Those are massive numbers about how Democrats and Republicans are thinking of each other, not just as having different political views, but as a danger to our country," Clinton stated. "That's not a very healthy set of attitudes to have about our country, and it's not a very particularly optimistic way of thinking forward."

Six percent of those surveyed said they believe the U.S. is more united than divided, compared to 11% in May, according to Clinton.

There were some brighter spots. Members of both parties had positive views of the state's economy, with 67% of Republicans classifying the current economic climate as good, while 64% of Democrats agreed.

Sixty percent of both parties agree on support for public hearings on legislative redistricting. Both also favor keeping Metro Nashville as one congressional district, with Democrats favoring the idea slightly more. Republicans appear ready to split the county, parceling it to Republican-held districts as they seek to oust incumbent U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper of Nashville, a Democrat.

On another note, 80% of respondents in both parties told pollsters that high-quality K–12 public education is essential for the state.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

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