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NASHVILLE – Tennessee Republicans and Democrats evidently occupy parallel universes when it comes to a number of top issues and concerns, ranging from whether the 2020 election was "stolen" by Democrat and now-President Joe Biden to questions on whether the COVID-19 pandemic is largely over or not, according to a newly released Vanderbilt University survey of 1,000 registered voters.

Race relations, including a question on whether Black residents continue to grapple with the legacy of slavery, revealed yet another largely partisan divide, according to the statewide poll, conducted May 3-20 by Vanderbilt's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. The overall survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.9%.

Splits include a view held by 71% of Republicans and 30% of independents who said they agreed with the statement that "Joe Biden stole the 2020 presidential election." Just 5 percent of Democrats did.

Former President Donald Trump has insisted the election was rigged against him for months, even though his claims were rejected by state officials, the courts, the Electoral College, his own administration and eventually Congress — which acted to certify the results amid a Capitol breach by a violent mob of Trump supporters.

"This is a remarkable number — that the vast majority of a political party feels the other party is illegitimate, despite the lack of any evidence," said Dr. Josh Clinton, a Vanderbilt political science professor and co-director of Vanderbilt's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions.

On another question, respondents were asked if they approved of Biden's American Jobs Plan, which proposes using $2.3 trillion to upgrade the nation's infrastructure over the next decade with road and bridge improvements, major upgrades to electric and water infrastructure, broadband internet access and more.

When the question used Biden's name as well as that of his plan, just 29% of Republicans said they approved of it, while 96% of Democrats supported it. Pollsters then posed the question to other survey participants without mentioning either Biden's name or the name of the proposal: GOP support doubled to 59%, according to the results, while Democrats' support dipped slightly.

"The fact that there is broad support for these economic issues when partisan indicators are omitted shows that political context can really affect people's reactions to important policy issues, depending on how the issues are framed," Clinton said.

Dr. John Geer, a poll co-director, said the public is "influenced more and more by ideology and less by evidence, which is concerning. Voters have increasing anger and resentment for the opposite party, oftentimes fueled by the politicians that represent them."

The poll found major differences in perceptions about racial inequality. Ninety percent of Democrats and 29% of Republicans agreed with the statement that the legacy of slavery affects the position of Black people in American society today a great deal or a fair amount.

On another question, 51% of Republicans but just 18% of Democrats said they felt race relations in the U.S. are generally good.

Tennesseans were asked about Republican Gov. Bill Lee's recently signed law that allows residents ages 21 and over to carry a handgun without a permit. The survey found a majority of Republicans – 57% – and 8% of Democrats supported the legislation.

And with immigration heating up once more on the nation's southern border as well in some parts of the U.S., including Chattanooga, over the housing of unaccompanied migrant children, Vanderbilt pollsters found a large jump in the number of Tennesseans who see it as an important issue for state government. Seventeen percent of Republicans and 2% of Democrats now see immigration as a top priority, up from 2% and zero percent in prior surveys.

Sixty percent of Republicans now agree with the statement that "immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care." The figure was 9% among Democrats.

When it comes to moving on from the COVID-19 pandemic, 74% of the Tennessee Republicans surveyed agreed with the statement that the pandemic "is largely over and things should go back to the way they were." Fourteen percent of Democrats did.

Among Republicans, 34% said they want state government to prioritize the economy, while 9% of Democrats back that. Meanwhile, 34% of Democrats said they want the state to focus on COVID-19, while 8% of Republicans agreed.

Poll findings on elected and other leaders show:

> Gov. Lee's job approval rating was 65% positive to 29% negative.

> U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, a Republican, had 50% job approval, while 40% said they disapprove of her performance.

> Forty-nine percent of those surveyed said they approved of the state's other Republican U.S. senator, freshman Bill Hagerty, while 32% they disapproved. Another 19% said they didn't know or it was too early to say.

> Congress is completely upside down when viewed by most Tennesseans. Some 28% approved of the job the U.S. House and Senate are doing. That compares to 59% approval of the Republican-dominated Tennessee General Assembly.

Vanderbilt's Geer pointed to some signs of statewide unity, with Democrats and Republicans largely expressing their pride as Americans and most reporting the strength of friendships with people from other political parties have largely survived the polarized era.

The survey found 97% of Republicans, 92% of Democrats and 93% of independents agreeing with the statement that they were proud to be an American. And 84% said they are friends with someone from the other party. Still, 14% of Republicans, 23% of Democrats and 14% of independents said they have lost friendships or other relationships over political differences.

"We have always been a divided nation, certainly more so now than usual. But there are some reasons for optimism, since we see that most people are united when it comes to essential values like American identity and maintaining friendships," Geer said.

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

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