Research News

Vanderbilt Poll: For next mayor, dealing with state legislature should be priority over new jobs; age, length of residency dominates perception of Nashville’s trajectory

  • Feelings that Nashville is on the “wrong track” and that population growth is making day-to-day lives worse have doubled since 2017.
  • “Dealing with the state legislature” is a priority for 89 percent of Nashvillians.
  • “Improving public education” is the issue most want the next mayor to make the top priority.
  • Metro Nashville Police Department’s approval rating increased from 66 percent to 79 percent following its response to The Covenant School shooting.

For the second year running, the Vanderbilt Poll–Nashville shows more than half of respondents believe the city is on the wrong track. From the start of the Nashville poll, in 2015, until 2021, Nashvillians viewed the city as on the right track. The current trend is amplified by a plurality of respondents indicating the growth of the city is making their quality of life worse, rather than better or having no effect.

However, other measures within the poll could indicate the sources of dissatisfaction are more complex than the issues that may first come to mind.

Joshua Clinton, professor of political science
Josh Clinton (Vanderbilt University)

“While the trend toward concern for the future of Nashville is clear, the origins of the concern are not,” said Josh Clinton, co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll, who holds the Abby and Jon Winkelried Chair and is a professor of political science. “Even though 56 percent think the city is on the wrong track, 59 percent also approve of the job Mayor John Cooper is doing. This suggests that concerns beyond the mayor’s control and likely related to concerns about growth, public education and the increasing tension between Nashville and the state government are affecting people’s optimism about the future of our city.”

The 56 percent who think the city is on the wrong track is more than double those who thought the same in 2017. Similarly, 47 percent say Nashville’s growth is making their day-to-day life worse—just under double the number in 2017.

Yet, respondents’ views about Nashville’s economy and their feelings of safety walking in their own neighborhoods have both been generally flat for three years, and views about the rapid growth of Nashville’s population have been flat for five years. Daily commute times are comparable to 2017, though that is likely a result of the dramatic increase in those working from home (15 percent in 2023 versus 3 percent in 2017).

“Views about Nashville’s economy are deeply split by income,” said John G. Geer, co-director of the Vanderbilt Poll, Ginny and Conner Searcy Dean of the College of Arts and Science and professor of political science. “Overall, two-thirds think the economy is very or fairly good, but if you look at those making less than $45,000 a year, that number falls to 44 percent.”

What is clear is that how long a respondent has lived in Nashville and their age deeply influence views of the city’s trajectory.

Those who have lived here for 20 or fewer years are evenly divided about the city being on the right or wrong track, but 63 percent of those who have lived here longer than 20 years view the city to be on the wrong track. Of those age 18–34, 50 percent view Nashville to be on the right track while that number falls to 29 percent among those 55–64. Neither household income nor party affiliation changed views of right track versus wrong track.

To differing degrees, a minority of those who have lived in Nashville for 20 or fewer years view the city’s growth as negatively affecting their day-to-day life. Fifty-nine percent of those who have lived in the city for more than 20 years feel their lives have been made worse. Those between 18–34 are twice as likely to say Nashville’s growth is improving their quality of life, compared to those 65 and older.

A majority of respondents (79 percent) also believe the city’s population is growing too quickly.

The capital city and Capitol Hill

When asked what the priorities of the next mayor should be, improving public education and reducing crime top the list. “Dealing with the state legislature” also ranks high (89 percent of combined top priority and important), topping “improving public transportation,” “addressing issues related to waste management,” and “bringing new companies and jobs to the city.”

John G. Geer (Vanderbilt University)
John G. Geer (Vanderbilt University)

“With the considerable attention being given in this legislative session to bills that would greatly affect Nashville—and in some cases, only Nashville—we knew we must explore opinions of the proposals,” Geer said.

For example, bills advancing through the state legislature would move oversight of the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority away from Metro Nashville and toward the Tennessee Legislature. MNAA is responsible for planning, construction, operation and management of Nashville International and John C. Tune airports. Respondents of all parties strongly favor control of MNAA staying with Metro Nashville—a combined 83 percent (92 percent of Democrats, 84 percent of Independents and 74 percent of Republicans).

Approximately three out of five respondents (62 percent) also disapprove or strongly disapprove of the state legislature’s move to decrease the size of Nashville’s Metro Council from 40 to 20 elected members. Unlike control of MNAA, this issue is divided by party affiliation. A majority of Democrats and Independents (82 percent and 56 percent, respectively) disapprove or strongly disapprove, while a minority of Republicans (34 percent) feel the same way.

An even more stark party divide emerges when looking at the state legislature’s handling of laws concerning the LGBTQ+ community. Combined, 64 percent of respondents disapprove or strongly disapprove of the legislature’s actions, including a majority of Democrats (80 percent) and Independents (53 percent). Conversely, 68 percent of Republicans approve or strongly approve of the same actions.

Priorities for the next mayor

Cooper, who is not seeking reelection, is ending his term with an approval rating of 59 percent, his highest recorded by the Vanderbilt Poll–Nashville since his early response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thirty-one percent of respondents would like to see the next mayor make only minor (24 percent) or no (7 percent) changes to Cooper’s priorities. Forty-eight percent would like to see major changes but not completely overhaul his priorities. And 20 percent would like to see a complete overhaul of priorities.

Respondents ranked the following issues, in order of importance, as ones the next mayor should focus on:

  1. Improving public education
  2. Reducing crime (trails education improvements by 10 percentage points)
  3. Dealing with the problems of low income and those in need and increasing the amount of affordable housing (tied for the third spot—just two percentage points below “reducing crime”)

“Only 3 percent of respondents consider improving public education as not too important or should not be done. This aligns with the considerable attention to public education we’ve seen in past surveys. The extremely low ‘not too important’ percentage is comparable to the percentages we see for a number of topics regarding supporting the less well-off,” Clinton said.

Support for two major Nashville projects is mixed, with a narrow majority (52 percent) opposing a new Titans stadium while Imagine East Bank has strong support at a rate of more than 2 to 1. Only respondents who had some knowledge of Imagine East Bank were asked about their support or opposition to the project. A third of respondents have heard nothing of the plan.

Support for these projects differs by party affiliation. Support for the Titans stadium is highest among Republicans and lowest among Democrats, with Independents falling in the middle. Support for Imagine East Bank is highest among Independents and lowest among Republicans, with Democrats falling in the middle.

How we elect

When it comes to how the next mayor will be chosen, Nashvillians have a clear preference at nearly 3 to 1.

There has been some talk about eliminating Nashville’s runoff election structure. Supporters of runoff elections say that runoffs make sure that a large candidate field does not result in a candidate winning with a relatively small percentage of the vote. Those who want to eliminate runoff elections say they are too costly and take too much time.

Fifty-three percent prefer to keep runoff elections, with only 19 percent wanting to eliminate runoff elections. Twenty-eight percent responded that they do not have enough information to decide. Keeping runoff elections is supported most by Democrats, followed by Independents, then Republicans.

The Covenant School mass shooting

“Our team began fielding this survey two weeks before the mass shooting at The Covenant School and concluded it 10 days later,” Geer said. “Given this timing, we can only glean a few things from the impact this tragic event had on the public. Of course, this horrific shooting has influenced the kind of questions we will ask in the soon-to-be-launched statewide poll.

“The one finding we can report is that the public’s approval of the Metro Nashville Police Department jumped,” Geer continued. “It was 66 percent prior to the shooting and 79 percent after it. This sharp increase aligns with the bravery these officers exhibited when they reached the school.”