Controversial topics drowned out the typical bread-and-butter business of the legislative session, and that played out in public opinion.
A new Talk Business & Politics-Hendrix College Poll of 535 Arkansas voters finds the 93rd General Assembly with only a 32% approval rating, while 45% disapproved of its actions.
Q: Do you approve or disapprove of the job the Arkansas legislature is doing?
23% Don’t Know
The legislature’s negative job approval rating and the intraparty, intra-branch fighting that played out in the recent session may also be a factor in a lower job approval rating from Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who still remains in positive territory.
“We’ve seen the state legislature’s approval struggle in recent years as politics in general have gotten more nationalized and partisan,” said Roby Brock, Talk Business & Politics Editor-in-Chief. “The underlying question here is: do Arkansans disapprove of the legislature, but approve of their legislator? I suspect that is the case, but the litmus test will be the 2022 re-election cycle.”
Another question posed in the latest survey explored Arkansans’ thoughts on one of the more controversial subjects in the 93rd General Assembly dealing with transgender medical restrictions.
Q: During the most recent legislative session, the Arkansas General Assembly passed a law that would prohibit most gender transition procedures for youth under the age of 18, even if such treatment has already begun. Do you support or oppose passage of this new law?
9.5% Don’t Know
Talk Business & Politics seeks bipartisan input in the construction and analysis of its polls.
Dr. Jay Barth, emeritus professor of politics at Hendrix College, is active in Democratic Party politics and helped craft and analyze the latest poll. He offered this analysis of the poll results:
Although the legislature has work to come back to finish in the fall, the Arkansas General Assembly just completed the bulk of its activity. As a whole, Arkansans did not like what they saw. Whether it was the contentiousness of the session (with conflicts between the GOP-majority body and Governor Hutchinson and within the body over rules for managing the pandemic and over passion-laden issues such as guns, abortion, and race) or a misplaced priority in its agenda, Arkansas voters have a negative perception of the legislature’s work this year.
The negative take on the General Assembly is shown across all age groups and all racial groups. Pluralities of both men and women evaluate the legislature negatively, but there is a gender gap expressed with women more likely to view the state’s governing body negatively than do men. The gap based on education also expresses itself in our numbers with college graduates particularly negative towards the performance of the legislature. While perceptions of the legislature are better in more rural areas, voters in the Second Congressional District are particularly negative towards its work. Finally, there is an expected partisan skew with a majority of Republicans evaluating the GOP-controlled legislature positively and Democrats emphatically negative; what is most interesting is that independents disapprove of its performance by a two-to-one (56-28) margin.
There were several passionate debates during the legislative session on transgender-related issues. One of those bills (which became Act 626 and is titled the SAFE Act) bars any medical treatment for puberty blocking or gender transition in minors including those who have begun treatment. A slight majority of Arkansas voters express support for the legislation although there are pockets of strong opposition in the Arkansas electorate just as there was in the General Assembly.
First, it’s interesting that—aside from older voters who are least likely to have an opinion—Arkansas voters were following the issue closely and we see very low “don’t know” numbers; those under 45 have very strong, but divided, opinions on the issue with those under 29 opposing the measure. On the SAFE Act, there is sharp positive division with eight in ten Republicans supporting it, three in four Democrats opposing it, and a slight majority of independents supporting the legislation. This is another topic on which an educational divide is evidenced with just at half of those with college educations opposing the legislation and nearly six in ten without a degree supporting it. Similarly, a racial division is shown with just at half of Black voters opposing a measure that was framed as a discriminatory measure by opponents and white voters supporting it. Finally, there is a slight gender gap on the issue with women more wary of it although the gender gap is not as large as on other issues involving sexual minorities such as gay marriage.
The big question moving forward is whether policies involving transgender individuals will show a natural change in public attitudes as more and more transgender and nonbinary individuals “come out,” as has been the case with gay and lesbian issues in the last generation. Or, will transgender issues look more like another social issue—abortion—where battle lines have solidified across generations. As a court case has already been filed against Act 626, it is clear that it is a policy issue that will be much discussed in Arkansas and across the nation in the coming years.
Robert Coon, managing partner with Impact Management Group, which works with Republican political candidates, also helped craft and analyze the latest poll. He offered this analysis of the poll results:
Roughly a third of Arkansas voters surveyed approve of the job the legislature is doing with a larger percentage (45%) disapproving. 23% indicated they ‘didn’t know’, demonstrating that many don’t follow state legislative business closely.
A majority of Republicans (52%) signified their approval, while the bulk of Democrats (69%) and Independents (56%) disapproved. Approval was lower among women (28%) than men (36%), though a plurality of both disapproved of the legislature. While the legislature itself may have low approval, as we saw with the gender transition legislation findings, that does not necessarily mean the laws or policies implemented by the legislature don’t have public support. Americans traditionally hold Congress in low regard, yet re-elect their own congressional representatives handily. It’s likely that same dichotomy exists at the state level.
A number of states considered gender transition legislation this year, primarily in red states, as the issue became a cultural priority among some conservatives. In Arkansas, where the legislation was ultimately passed into law, a majority of voters (53%) in this survey say they support the prohibition, with voters under the age of 30 being the only age group opposing it overall (56%). Support was the highest among voters 30-44 and 45-64, which correlates to most common parental age groups.
Democrats and Republicans view this issue quite the opposite with 80% of Republicans supporting it and 73% of Democrats opposing it. Independents, on this issue, are more aligned with Republicans (52% support), but only slightly. There is a marked difference with how college educated and non-college educated voters responded to this topic. Only 44% of college educated voters support the legislation compared to 58% of the non-college educated group.
This survey of 535 registered voters was conducted May 26-31, 2021 and has a margin of error of +/- 5.5%. Respondents were contacted via landline telephones and text message. The poll is weighted to account for key demographics and is balanced by congressional district. For more detail on methodology and demographics, click here.
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