A conversation with Shrader on State of the State survey

Millsaps College and Chism Strategies recently released the results of their quarterly State of the State survey. The report outlines what issues are important to Mississippians, as well as voters’ thoughts on the direction of the state. To help break down that information and what it means, the Sun recently spoke with Nathan Shrader, chair of the Department of Government and Politics at Millsaps.

The survey states that healthcare is the top concern of Mississippians. That being the case, why did the one candidate who opposed healthcare expansion, Tate Reeves, win as governor?

“That’s a fantastic question. We’ve seen the public take a position in polling that is very much out of alignment with the position of the majority of the state legislature, former Gov. Phil Bryant and now Gov. Reeves. That begs the question, what causes this incongruence of sorts?

“We saw that in the education question as well. Last year, during the end of the session, the House approved an amendment that would raise teacher pay by $4,000 annually. It passed House and died in the Senate. That amendment won the approval of the people in our survey, but at the same time, Reeves, who was elected governor, was credited with killing the proposal. Sometimes, voters vote one way but that doesn’t necessarily reflect where they are on a given issue.”

With so many people (61 percent) supporting some sort of healthcare expansion, do you think Reeves and the legislature will be forced to act?

“Here is the way I like to think about what we’re trying to do with the state of the state (survey): we don’t advocate for a scenario where elected leaders make a decision based on the polls. But we want to make sure the elected people at the capitol, those in the news media and voters have access to this information to show where the public stands on these things.”

Looking at the U.S. Senate Race, 20 percent of people say they’re undecided in a potential rematch between Hyde-Smith and Democrat Mike Espy. Is that a high number?

“Perhaps if it were a different race where the candidates were not as well known that number might not be considered high. But these are individuals we just saw on the ballot. Cindy Hyde-Smith has a nine-point lead, but you have to look at the undecided voters. Hyde-Smith is extremely popular with (those who identified as) strong Republicans, while Espy is doing just as well with strong Democrats and Democrat-leaners. The independents and the Republican-leaners, they’re not convinced.”

So, is this survey good news for Espy?

The data we produced shows that we have a Senate race, with a sitting senator below where she should be in (terms of popularity) in an election year. There is still a nine-point gap between the Republican and Democratic presumptive nominees, but Hyde-Smith has some problems. She’s not popular among Democrats and has some work to do with Republican leaners and independents, while Mike Espy is a popular, well known figure. I wouldn’t say that is a lock (for either one).”

Forty-four percent of those surveyed disapprove of the legislature’s job performance. However, Republicans won a majority again, and actually picked up seats. Something doesn’t add up.

“It was not a question in this survey, but we did a question in previous surveys asking, ‘Do you disapprove of your own legislator?’ People are willing to point the finger at the legislature as a whole, but feel more warm and fuzzy about their own (representative). That may help explain why the legislative approval rating is low, but people sense that other members are a problem, not their person.”

Is the 44 percent disapproval a high number in the history of the state of the state survey?

“If you have a chance to glance at it, in the survey report, we have a comparative table set up to look at trends over time. We can see that the legislature approval rating this time was better than it was in July 2019 but was still lower than it was in the calendar year before that. There have been peaks and valleys. The best performance came in 2018. During that time period, they had just completed the special session where they passed the lottery bill, with money being earmarked for transportation … their approval rating went up 10 points in that quarter. You can look and see that if the legislature takes up some landmark bill or issue that people think is important, it can help drive their approval or disapproval.”

With healthcare topping the list as the most important issue, are infrastructure issues still important to Mississippians?

“I want to clarify that healthcare moving up as the number one issue is not the same as roads and bridges falling off the radar. They were right there behind school funding. Something that we can see in the data is that about 80 percent of Mississippi people rate the quality of roads and infrastructure as fair or poor. The follow-up question was whether you would be willing to pay higher taxes, fees or tolls to repair them. Forty-five percent say they’re willing to pay more, and 48 percent say ‘no.’ Those polled acknowledge the problem, but say they don’t want to pay for this.”

That’s why the lottery is so popular. It’s not a tax.

“Exactly right. It’s viewed as a tax paid by choice or a fee paid by choice. Everybody is not charged for it.”

What was the sample size of the survey?

“The survey was 618 voters. Fifty-one percent of interviews with people who had cell phones and 49 percent were with people who had land lines. That 618-person sample is reflective of what we anticipate the voter turnout to look like in the state. We use a database of people who are actually registered to vote.”

How do you choose who to call?

“Part of this had to be driven by the reflection of the 2020 electorate – what share of the electorate is likely to be men and women, what share is likely to be white, African American and Latino, what share has a high school degree, et cetera.”

What about Trump? Do you think he’ll get re-elected, based on the results of the survey?

“I see no scenario where Trump would not win Mississippi in a general election.”

How many surveys has Chism and Millsaps worked on together?

It’s hard to believe just how quickly time goes by. This is our 10th quarterly State of the State survey. We’re building a nice data set here for looking at trends. We’re in 10 and we hope to have quite a few more.”

Finally, I want to ask you this. Millsaps’ political science department recently changed its name. Tell me about that.

“It has been, going back to the 1940s, been the department of political science. What we’ve found is that when you have a limited amount of time – a 25 or 30-second elevator pitch when you’re talking to a student and hoping to get that student interested in a program – the question is always, what is political science? This (new name) is being up front about who we are and we study, and making sure that for students and perspective students, its clear for them. We no longer have to say, ‘we’re in political science and this what we do.’ It’s clear now. We study government and politics.”

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