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Vanderbilt Poll: Approvals slip for Nashville’s elected leaders, public schools; mayor receives high marks for response to challenging issues

by Apr. 15, 2021, 6:01 AM

Most Davidson County voters plan to get vaccinated for COVID-19, agree local race relations is a large problem 

Davidson County voters have slightly less confidence in their elected officials and core institutions as compared with last year, including the Metro Nashville Police Department and Nashville public schools, according to the latest  Vanderbilt Poll-Nashville. A majority of Nashville residents, however—59 percent—still think things in Nashville are “generally headed in the right direction.” That is down from 63 percent last year. Concurrently, 40 percent of poll respondents feel that things in the Nashville area are “off on the wrong track”; that number is up from 36 percent last year.  

“Overall approval for elected officials and institutions has slipped, but Nashville residents continue to give high marks to Mayor John Cooper on most issues, which speaks to his successes in responding to the many challenges our community faced the past yearincluding tornadoes, the pandemic and the December bombing,” said John Geer, Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science at Vanderbilt University. “Our data show that Mayor Cooper is doing much better than many predicted, given these challenges.”  

The survey of 1,006 registered Davidson County voters was conducted between March 8 and March 30, 2021, with a margin of error of ±4.6 percentage points. The countywide poll is conducted annually by  Vanderbilt University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions (CSDI), directed by Geer and  Josh Clinton, Abby and Jon Winkelreid Chair and professor of political science. More detailed results and methods can be found at  vu.edu/poll. 

Nashville residents less confident in elected officials compared with 2020

Well over half to two-thirds of poll respondents approve of their elected officials and institutions, but approval ratings have dropped overall since 2020. Mayor John Cooper’s approval rating is at 57 percent, down from 80 percent in 2020. Similarly, approval ratings of Metro City Council (63%), Metro Nashville Public School Board (60%), Metro Nashville Police Department (74%), and U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (65%) have seen slight declines since 2020.  

“Mayor Cooper’s support became increasingly polarized. Republicans and Independents showed far steeper drops in support for him than did Democrats,” Geer said. 

Metro Nashville Police policy and race relations

In the case of the Metro Nashville Police Department, three-quarters of poll respondents approve of the work they are doing, including 81 percent of Hispanic people polled, 79 percent of white people polled and 63 percent of Black people polled. Furthermore, more than 80 percent of poll respondents agree that there should be a public commission overseeing the Metro Nashville Police Department. 

Ninety-six percent of all poll respondents agree that the police should use body cameras to record interactions with the public, including 100 percent of Hispanic respondents, 97 percent of white respondents and 94 percent of Black respondents.  

“Most seem relatively content with how the police department handles public safety issues in Nashville,” Clinton said. “There are important and significant differences by race that require further discussion and study. But there is also broad agreement across race and partisanship on several issues—such as the use of body cameras—which is a good place to start those conversations.” 

Almost 70 percent of poll respondents agree that systemic racism and the issue of race relations are “large” or “extremely large” problems in the Nashville area, with Black respondents (85 percent) being more likely than white (61 percent) and Hispanic respondents (54 percent) to agree with that claim. 

Republicans are less likely to get the vaccine than Democrats

Though Gov. Bill Lee announced on March 22 that the COVID-19 vaccine would be available to everyone 16 years of age and older, significant differences in vaccine hesitancy remain and fall along party lines. Forty percent of Republicans are either unsure they will get the vaccine or do not plan to get it, as compared to only nine percent of Democrats who hesitate to get the vaccine. Notably, 36 percent of Hispanics polled either do not plan to get the vaccine or are unsure if they will.   

“Given the differences in vaccine hesitancy across racial and partisan lines, it seems like additional outreach is needed to reach those residents that are unsure about the vaccines,” Clinton said. 

That said, poll results demonstrate continuously high levels of concern about the COVID-19 virus across political parties and across race. Seventy-four (74) percent of poll respondents are still “somewhat concerned” or “very concerned” about COVID-19 in 2021, compared with 82 percent in 2020. While the Nashville outdoor mask mandate has been lifted since the poll was taken, mask use continues to be high, with 93 percent of Republicans and 96 percent of Democrats “usually” or “always” wearing a mask. 

“People’s willingness to get the vaccine is very much tied to political party, which we have seen across the country. Nashville is no exception to this phenomenon,” Geer said. “Partisanship is infiltrating almost every aspect of our lives.” 

Increasing concerns about public education

Davidson County voters are increasingly concerned about the performance of Nashville public schools at every age group. Of note, 25 percent of poll respondents believe Nashville public preschools, kindergartens and elementary schools are failing or performing at below average standards, up from 11 percent in 2020. Almost one-third (32%) of respondents believe Nashville public high schools are failing or performing at below average standards, up from 23 percent in 2020. 

“This decline in perceived performance of public schools may be temporary,” Geer said. “Assuming we go back to full in-person teaching by the fall, the public’s judgment about schools may improve to pre-pandemic levels.” 

More than 80 percent of all Davidson County voters agree that public schools should not be limited to online instruction. More than half of poll respondents (54 percent), mostly Democrats (66 percent) and Independents (54 percent), agree that Metro Nashville Public Schools’ current format—a mix of in-person and online instruction—is the best option for students until enough residents have been vaccinated. Twenty-eight percent of registered voters, mostly Republicans (58 percent), are in favor of full-time, in-person instruction five days a week under proper safety precautions, even if not enough residents have been vaccinated. 

ABOUT THE VANDERBILT POLL

The Vanderbilt Poll is supported by the  Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt University. In 2015, the Vanderbilt Poll became a charter member of the  American Association for Public Opinion Research’s Transparency Initiative. 

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