Nathan Shrader is assistant professor of political science and director of American Studies at Millsaps College. The department recently worked with Chism Strategies on a State of the State Survey, which asks voters questions on several hot-topic issues. Shrader recently discussed the survey’s findings with Northside Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren.
How did you and Millsaps get involved in doing these surveys?
“This (teaching) was not my initial career. I was a legislative aid to Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll. After graduate school, but before I began my Ph.D., I worked as a legislative aid in the Virginia House of Delegates. Part of my interests and my professional background before academia was in state government and politics. In our department (at Millsaps), we have a very strong focus on the application of political science, meaning we don’t just teach the theories behind politics.
“Brad Chism is an alum of Millsaps and the political science department, so we decided it would be important to partner with Brad, given his expertise in the public opinion realm. We had a discussion a few years ago, saying someone should be collecting subject opinion data on (state political topics), and we looked at each other and said it should be us.”
What are the ultimate goals of doing these surveys?
“This is our third ‘state of the state’ survey. Our first effort was a poll that came out before the primary election in last year’s Jackson mayoral race. Our long-term goal is to make it a quarterly installment. We want to build up over time a nice, usable database for people to use to track trends in public opinion. And hopefully, as the project goes on, we’ll have more student engagement.”
How long does it take to put the survey together?
“What happens is in the month before we’re ready to go out into the field, the Millsaps political science faculty and Mr. Chism will start to brainstorm on what type of issues are currently being debated within the state. We also, as you can tell from the poll, do an approve/disapprove evaluation of state officials. That’s not the same in every poll. Last time, we surveyed State Treasurer Lynn Fitch, Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley and (Secretary of State) Delbert Hosemann.
“It’s important for (our leaders) to know how the people they lead perceive them. That’s why we do that at the start of the survey, to get a general sense of what people think. Then, we delve into policy issues. Those questions change each time, with one exception. We will always ask what the top priority (should be) for Mississippi’s elected leaders. Fixing roads and bridges was the number one priority. Funding for public schools and access and affordability of healthcare have consistently been one, two and three, in three surveys in a row.”
How often will the state of the state polls be done?
“We’re hoping to make this a quarterly project. Our timing on the January poll worked out well enough. We released it the week the (Mississippi) Legislature convened and we heard from legislators who said, ‘I don’t know if I agree with this issue or that, but it’s helpful to know what people are thinking about these things.’ A lot of times, lawmakers go into the session blind, without knowing what the public has to say.”
Reading through the survey, I noticed that the majority of participants supported expanding Medicaid. That surprised me, considering Mississippi is often ranked as the most conservative state in the nation. Were there any results of the polling that surprised you?
“Fifty-two percent of Mississippi voters say they support expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. That I think may surprise some people because the legislature’s been pretty adamant about not expanding it, and the lieutenant governor and governor don’t favor that. Also, there’s the perception that Mississippi voters are reflexively opposed to tax increases. Meanwhile, one of our questions asked if voters would support an increase in the sales tax on cigarettes. Sixty-four percent would support it; only 29 percent say they would oppose it. There was support across party lines for doing that. It sends a signal that Mississippians aren’t reflexively opposed to some types of tax increase.”
What is your take then on the fact that so many people (54 percent) approve of Gov. Phil Bryant, even though he doesn’t support expanding Medicaid?
“Gov. Bryant and Attorney General Jim Hood had very strong approval ratings. Their evaluations in this poll were very close to their approval/disapproval ratings back in September. If you look at Gov. Bryant, they (voters) know him well. He’s been in the legislature and he’s served in state government for years. They may not approve of certain things he’s doing, but they know him. They have a sense of who he is and what he stands for. “When it came to Gov. Bryant, we had an option for people who did not recognize him to tell us that. Just over one percent of voters (didn’t) know who he is. It shows (voters) have clearly formed an opinion. Only three percent don’t know who Hood is and five percent don’t know who Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves is.”
What do these figures say about next year’s statewide election?
“First, Attorney General Hood, when you dig deeper into his numbers, Hood’s support is bipartisan in nature. Reeves’ support is less so. Hood has a plus 30-percent evaluation among voters that lean Republican. That means 30 percent more of Republicans approve of him than disapprove. When it comes to Lt. Gov. Reeves, 38 percent approve, 34 percent disapprove, and 23 percent weren’t sure. That number is fascinating. He (Reeves) is a well-known figure in Mississippi politics. He’s campaigned statewide, he’s run successfully for statewide offices. What that would mean is that people can’t decide if they approve or disapprove of him. He has to reintroduce himself to a segment of the electorate if he runs for governor.”
Based on this data, could Mike Espy also be hopeful to pull out a win for Senate?
“Possibly. I hate to draw conclusions about what this might mean for the U.S. Senate elections this year. We didn’t ask questions about those candidates. I think what it might speak to is less about (an) individual campaign, but (gives) a sense about what the public is interested in terms of some of those issues. I would be hesitant to say it’s good or bad news for any specific campaign.”
One thing I didn’t notice in the survey was a question on raising the gas tax. That’s been a hot topic recently. Have you asked that in the past?
“We have. We asked that in the first ‘state of the state’ survey in September. Let me explain the context. We asked specifically if (respondents) would be willing to raise the gasoline tax to fund public schools. Our question wasn’t a straight up ‘would you support this?’ but was linked to public schools. At that time, only 21 percent said they would support it to fund public education. Seventy-two percent said no.”
Why was the gas tax linked to education and not roads?
“Our first survey had a public education focus. What we did with that survey was ask a series of questions about raising a certain kind of tax to fund public schools. All (the questions) were linked to public schools.
“We asked that question differently in the January survey, (when) we asked specifically if (respondents) would support a higher state gas tax to fund roads or bridges. There’s where you saw some movement. Thirty-eight percent would favor it, 50 were opposed to it. That was a nearly 20-point jump in the level of support.”
What role do Millsaps students play in putting this together?
“We’re just getting (it) off the ground this year (and) haven’t had much engagement with students directly on creating questions or on the analysis of data. As the project moves forward, our goal is to link some of the work done on the survey to our political science research course.”
Let’s switch gears and focus on last year’s mayoral poll. I don’t remember it off the top of my head, but how accurate was it in terms of predicting Chokwe Antar Lumumba would win?
“Based on our report released, we were spot on with where most of the candidates finished. We were right in our prediction that Lumumba would win, but his margin was larger than where we polled him at. This is fairly rare when it comes to voter behavior. Most of the undecided people in our research broke for Lumumba. Usually, they filter out to (all) the candidates. This time, they went in unison to him. Rarely do you see all the independent/undecided (individuals) move to one candidate and not split to all of them.”
What was the makeup of the respondents?
“The results are weighted to reflect the last (statewide) general election ... We had 603 participants.”