For the first time since the Vanderbilt Poll–Nashville was established in 2015, more than half of respondents say they believe the city is headed in the wrong direction.
Fifty-three percent of those who took the survey, which gauges people’s perception of their local government, said that Nashville is off track—a significant swing from last year, when 59 percent of residents polled said they believed the city was “generally headed in the right direction.”
“People are no longer as rosy about Nashville’s future as they once were,” said Josh Clinton, Abby and Jon Winkelried Chair and professor of political science, and co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll. “That’s a shift—that people think the city is going in the wrong direction.”
A weary populace
The latest results paint a picture of a pandemic-weary community that likely is disenchanted with several aspects of everyday life: inflation, skyrocketing housing prices and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Such stressors can influence people’s view in general, particularly when it comes to quality of life issues, Clinton said.
However, many respondents have given local leaders, such as Mayor John Cooper, high approval ratings.
“They still are broadly approving of elected officials who are running the city—suggesting that some of the malaise … is probably just general effects that are kind of beyond the control of people in Nashville itself,” Clinton said.
Cooper’s approval rating in the latest poll came in at 56 percent, down only one percentage point from last year. He has the approval of 67 percent of Democrats, 56 percent of independents and 40 percent of Republicans. Cooper has not yet announced whether he plans to seek reelection in 2023, but normally an approval rating of over 50 percent bodes well for him if he chooses to run again.
Approval ratings for other government agencies vary, but all have declined over the past year. Metro City Council dropped from 63 to 54 percent. The Metro Nashville Public School Board dropped from 60 to 54 percent, and the school system’s director, Adrienne Battle, saw her rating drop from 72 to 65 percent. The Metro Nashville Police Department dropped from 74 to 68 percent.
These declines square with the shift in “right track versus wrong track” numbers for Nashville overall, but the 2022 approval ratings are still strong. Indeed, the city’s firefighters enjoyed nearly unanimous approval ratings (95 percent) in the Nashville Fire Department’s first appearance on the annual poll of registered Davidson County voters.
Wealth disparities influence priorities
Polarization is widespread in American politics today and traditionally shows up along the party lines that divide Democrats and Republicans. But this year’s Vanderbilt Poll results suggest that income may be a big factor driving wedges between residents of Nashville.
Nearly 65 percent of poll respondents overall said Mayor Cooper should make affordable housing a key priority. When respondents’ views are sorted by income level, the polarization comes into focus. Among those making $100,000 a year or more, 51 percent said affordable housing should be a key priority. Among those making less than $45,000, 70 percent shared that view.
Also, more than 30 percent of residents making more than $100,000 a year rated the city’s economy as “very good,” compared to only about 10 percent of Nashvillians overall.
Similar divisions pop up in the focus on reducing crime. Overall, it is a top priority for 63 percent of respondents. For those making more than $100,000, it drops to just over 50 percent, but for those making less than $45,000, that number jumps to more than 70 percent. In addition, two-thirds of the respondents who make less than $45,000 are afraid to walk in their neighborhoods at night, while less than half of those making more than $100,000 express that concern.
“We are starting to see potential polarization based on income,” said John Geer, co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll, Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science, and professor of political science.
“Former President Donald Trump tapped into anger, especially among rural and less well-off people, because they did not feel government was being responsive to them. And that’s manifested itself in lots of party polarization. But the realities are that at the core of it, we’ve suffered serious income polarization in this country for the last 30 years—or perhaps even longer. And we’re beginning to see the consequences of that here in Nashville.”
Other issues highlighted
COVID-19: The poll showed that most people are moving on from focusing on COVID-19 as a major concern. Fifty-four percent of those surveyed said they’d already contracted COVID-19 or have lived with someone who tested positive for the coronavirus.
Major League Baseball: A plurality of respondents supported bringing an MLB team to Nashville, but more than a quarter of those polled were unsure of the merits of doing so. This is a conversation still in its early stages, Geer noted.
About the Vanderbilt Poll
The survey of 1,008 adults ages 18 or older living in Davidson County was conducted between March 18 and April 16, 2022, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 4.3 percentage points. The countywide poll is conducted annually by Vanderbilt University’s Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. In 2015, the Vanderbilt Poll became a charter member of the American Association for Public Opinion Research’s Transparency Initiative. More detailed results and methodology can be found at vu.edu/poll.