Published: November 4, 2012
Tennessee has turned an even deeper shade of red, according to the latest poll conducted by Middle Tennessee State University.
The poll, which was released earlier this week, suggests Tennessee’s voters, especially political independents and those 45 or younger, are leaning further to the right than any other time in the past.
“At least two trends playing out in Tennessee run counter to what seems to be happening nationally in this election,” said Ken Blake, director of the MTSU Poll. “First, President (Barack) Obama is behind Gov. (Mitt) Romney among younger Tennesseans and has lost substantial ground in that demographic since the 2008 election. Nationally, Obama has lost some ground among younger voters since 2008 but still leads Romney by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, the economy – a primary issue for voters nationally – seems to be taking a back seat to values among Tennessee voters.”
The Republican Party has clearly been gaining ground in Tennessee. All but six Tennessee counties voted Republican in 2008.
In 2010, Republicans won both the governor’s office and control of the Tennessee General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction.
But the analysis, which compares the latest MTSU Poll results with exit poll data from 2008, shows where the state’s red shades have grown especially deep: among whites, the college educated, political independents, those under 45, and men.
“There’s compelling evidence here that Republicans have gained – and Democrats lost – substantial ground in several Tennessee voter segments, especially politically unaffiliated and younger to middle-aged voters,” Blake said.
The gains can be seen in the state’s strong support of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.
According to the poll, a solid 59 percent of the state’s registered, likely voters say they support Romney. Just 34 percent say they support Obama. About 6 percent are undecided, and the remaining 1 percent say they support someone else.
Romney enjoys his broadest support among the self-described, white evangelical Christians who make up nearly 61 percent of likely voters.
Among Tennesseans in this group, Romney leads Obama 74 percent to 21 percent, with 5 percent undecided. This segment of Tennessee’s electorate has supported the Republican candidate for president in both elections since 2004, the first presidential election during which the MTSU Poll sampled attitudes statewide.
The closest thing to a division in this key demographic for Republicans in Tennessee happens along its gender split, with male white evangelicals significantly more pro-Romney (79 percent) than female white evangelicals (63 percent).
Jason Reineke, associate director of the MTSU Poll, said there are several possible explanations as to why white evangelicals have gotten behind Romney following the primary.
“Some religious voters’ choices may be driven more by opposition to Obama than direct support for Romney,” Reineke said. “However, it is also important to note that it is far from uncommon for partisans who didn’t vote for the winner in their primary to come home to the party, almost regardless of the candidate selected, in these highly polarized political times.
“Thus the support for Romney we see among white evangelical Christians actually may have little to do with their race or religion and just be another example of partisan loyalty and entrenchment.”
The poll also suggests Tennessee voters choose candidates based on which one shares their values and which is more honest rather than which candidate will do a better job of handling the economy, although economic considerations will still be very important.
Despite a variety of questions in the latest MTSU Poll about economic, social, and foreign policy issues, the factor that best predicts which candidate a likely voter supports is the voter’s answer to the question, “Which candidate comes closer to sharing your values?”
Of those who answer Romney, 94 percent express support for the former Massachusetts governor. Similarly, 93 percent who say Obama comes closer to sharing their values express support for him. Most undecided likely voters, 56 percent, say Romney comes closer to sharing their values.
The next most important consideration for Tennessee voters – a sense of each candidate’s honesty – shows similar correlations with voting preferences.
“Most of us, even those who are most engaged in politics, simply don’t have the time, resources, or interest to seek out total information or form detailed opinions on every aspect of every issue,” Reineke said. “So we often rely heavily on general assessments and perceptions of whether a candidate thinks and feels similar to how we do ourselves, or whether a candidate is trustworthy, in place of knowledge.”
Behind these two considerations, though, Tennessee voters consider the economy an important election consideration, and more so the economy’s momentum – whether they think the economy is getting better or getting worse – than the economy’s current state.
Those who think the economy is getting better (40 percent) tend to support Obama, while those who think that it is getting worse (47 percent) tend to support Romney, as one might expect.
Even more important than the current momentum of the economy, though, is which candidate likely voters think would do better at handling it moving forward.
After general assessments of the candidates’ values and honesty, expectation about how the candidates will perform on the economy is the most important factor in likely voters’ choice for president.
Thirty-one percent said they thought Obama would do a better job, while 59 percent said they thought Romney would do a better job. This almost perfectly mirrors the 59 percent who support Romney and 34 percent who support Obama in the election.
About 4 percent think the candidates would handle the economy equally well or poorly, with the rest saying that they don’t know or refusing to answer the question.
“Our representative sample of Tennessee’s likely voters is essentially telling us they think Gov. Romney would do a better job handling an economy that is, from their perspective, bad and that seems to them to be either staying that way or getting worse under President Obama,” Reineke said.
After attitudes on these first three factors – values, trust, and the economy – are accounted for, the influence of other factors, such as foreign policy (including terrorism and the killing of Osama Bin Laden), social issues (such as abortion and gay marriage), and even the federal deficit, though important and informative in and of themselves, had little impact on likely voters’ choice for president.