Vanderbilt poll: Obama closes gap with Romney

President Barack Obama has pulled into a virtual tie with presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney in traditionally conservative Tennessee, according to a new Vanderbilt University pol..

The poll also found that Tennesseans weren’t thrilled with the Republican-led General Assembly’s frequent focus on social, cultural and religious issues this year. But Republican Gov. Bill Haslam managed to remain above the fray, winning approval from 61 percent of poll participants.

“Tennessee is clearly a red state,” said John Geer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt. “But these data show that the public is much more moderate than our state legislature.”

The poll of 1,002 Tennessee residents who are 18 and older found 42 percent would vote for Romney and 41 percent for Obama if the election were held now. The survey, conducted May 2-9 by Princeton Survey Research Associates International for Vanderbilt, had a margin of error of 4 percentage points.

Geer cautioned that the registered voters among the poll participants favored Romney by a larger margin, with 47 percent saying they would vote for the former Massachusetts governor and 40 percent for Obama. He said that’s a more likely outcome in November.

“It’s not that close a race,” Geer said, predicting Romney would prevail with little trouble. “I suspect a lot of hard-core conservatives are still getting used to the idea of Romney as the nominee, and by the time the general election comes along, they’ll be in lock step with Romney. But right now there’s a small chunk that are still being cautious.”

Three of every four poll participants said they were registered to vote.

While he swept to a big victory nationally in 2008, Obama lost Tennessee by a large margin to U.S. Sen. John McCain, who won 57 percent of the vote here. Former Democratic Vice President Al Gore, a son of Tennessee, lost the state to George W. Bush in 2000, costing him the Oval Office as the race came down to Florida.

But there’s still time for people to register to vote, and Romney, a wealthy businessman before he turned to public service, sometimes struggled to connect with Southern voters during the Republican primaries, finishing second to Rick Santorum in Tennessee and losing all but two other Southern states until Santorum dropped out.

Bill Freeman, a top fundraiser for Obama in Tennessee, said the overall poll result reflects a “tightening” the president’s campaign had already noticed.

“We’ve been tracking it for some time,” Freeman said Thursday. “We’ve watched it go from a solid-Republican (state) to a leaning-Republican to, we believe, a toss-up state now. We think we’re just a point or two behind and that winning Tennessee is in our grasp.

“And we’re especially excited about what that’ll mean to the down-ticket races across the state.”

Chip Forrester, chairman of the Tennessee Democratic Party, said he was “not totally surprised” by the poll numbers. The party has sensed a growing excitement over Obama’s work to “save” the auto industry and put the country on a “slow but sure track back to economic stability,” he said.

“But we’ve got a tough fight. The Obama campaign has been clear about that. We’ll have to work very hard.”

No matter how hard Democrats work, Obama has no chance in Tennessee, said Adam Nickas, executive director of the Tennessee Republican Party.

“Any poll that shows a close presidential race in Tennessee is laughable,” he said. “That would make more sense if they had polled the College Democrats at Vanderbilt.”

Nickas noted Obama’s double-digit loss four years ago and said the president has only hurt his standing with Tennessee voters since then with “his overall lack of leadership and his bad economic policies.”

But it’s not clear that Romney fares much better. While the poll found Obama’s approval rating in the state was 43 percent, Romney’s approval as a candidate was only 37 percent.

Unhappiness with the legislature

At the same time, the poll found Tennesseans weren’t as happy with the General Assembly’s focus on certain issues as many legislators seemed to believe.

Just 15 percent said lawmakers “spent the appropriate amount of time addressing social, cultural or religious issues” during this year’s session, and 22 percent said they didn’t spend enough time on them. A larger number, 42 percent, said lawmakers spent too much time on such matters.

Some of the General Assembly’s forays into issues such as “gateway sexual activity,” debating evolution in classrooms and permitting the carrying of guns into business parking lots have given Tennessee “a black eye nationally,” Geer said.

Just 22 percent of the people surveyed said it was more important to protect the rights of handgun owners to carry their weapons into any commercial establishment than it was to protect the rights of business owners to set their own rules. More than 7 in 10 said the opposite.

“The public is not wild about this stuff,” said Geer, co-director of the poll, which was sponsored by Vanderbilt’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. “When you aggregate opinion in the state, it’s more moderate than the aggregate behavior of state legislators. On certain issues, like guns in parking lots, they were way out of step.”

Asking about legislative priorities a different way yielded similar results. Just 5 percent of poll respondents said lawmakers spent too much time addressing economic issues, while 20 percent said they spent the appropriate amount of time. More than half — 56 percent — said the General Assembly spent too little time on the Tennessee economy, which 55 percent characterized as “fairly bad” or “very bad.”

Nickas said, however, that the legislature was more locked in on the economy than public opinion indicated.

“Our main focus, and Tennessee’s main focus, is the economy,” he said. “We had more tax cuts in this year’s budget than any other in the state’s history. The focus was creating an environment for economic growth, reducing the size of government, cutting the budget by 2 percent and, even while doing that, still being able to do things like restore money to the rainy day fund.”

The United States economy got an even harsher assessment than Tennessee’s, with 76 percent saying it’s in bad shape.

Haslam wins them over

Although Tennesseans dinged their elected representatives for focusing on social issues at the expense of economic concerns, they don’t appear to have painted Gov. Bill Haslam with the same brush.

In fact, the governor may have benefited from the General Assembly’s priorities, which he tried to rein in at times over the past few months. More than 3 in 5 poll respondents said they approve of the job Haslam is doing in his second year.

Even Democrats gave Haslam their approval, with 53 percent saying they like the job he’s doing.

“The governor is a skilled leader, frankly,” Geer said. “He’s shown himself to be more moderate than the state legislature. Because he doesn’t have a veto that needs a two-thirds override, he has to be more symbolic than substantive on some of these responses, and I think he’s handled it pretty well.”

Legislators need only a simple majority of both chambers to override a veto. Haslam used his first veto in two years to derail legislation that targeted Vanderbilt’s “all-comers” nondiscrimination policy, saying the state shouldn’t meddle in a private organization’s affairs. The legislature had already adjourned for the year by that point.

Haslam spokeswoman Alexia Poe said the governor has stuck to the priorities he laid out in his 2010 campaign.

“He’s pretty much focused on what he said he would focus on, whether it’s during the legislative session or during the rest of the year,” Poe said. “He’s made the point that he thinks the legislative session is part of what we work on, but running government is the big part of what we work on.

“He’s focused on jobs and education and making government more efficient and effective, both through the lawmaking process but also through our everyday work.”

Poe said Haslam feels that some of the social issues tackled by the legislature grabbed undue amounts of attention, taking away from “the big picture.”

“He’s very respectful that the legislature is a separate and equal branch of government, and it’s their prerogative to bring up issues and introduce legislation,” she said. “But he was also pretty clear about what he thought was important for us to focus on this year.”

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