Every time City staff decides to recommend what it euphemistically calls a “revenue measure,” it first commissions a public opinion survey.
The primary purpose of the survey is to determine what type of new or increased tax or bond issue is likely to obtain the necessary majority – 50 percent plus at least one more vote for a general‑purpose tax and two‑thirds for a general‑obligation bond – from the electorate. But the survey also usually begins with a section called “Voter Mood and Perception” in which the pollsters ask respondents for their opinions about four topics:
- Are things in the City of Alameda “headed in the right direction” – or “on the wrong track”?
- Do you approve or disapprove of the job being done by City officials – including the mayor and city council?
- How do you rate – from “excellent” to “poor” – the quality of various services being provided by the City?
- How do you rate – from “extremely serious” to “not too serious” – a variety of problems facing the City?
The Merry‑Go‑Round always has found this section to be the most interesting part of the survey, especially when one compares how the answers change over time. Like election results, poll results are notoriously open to interpretation. (Did Measure Z fail because Alamedans are racists – or because they didn’t like the proponents of the measure telling them that they are when they’re not?) Nevertheless, they often are the closest one can get to a true reflection of the vox populi.
The most recent survey, consisting of 480 “interviews” (by cell phone and online) with likely voters, was conducted in February, and the results were summarized at the May 10 Council meeting. The upshot was that Council voted not to put a “revenue measure” on the ballot this November. A lack of enthusiasm by likely voters for any of the tested alternatives may have been the reason for that decision – but something else may have been going on as well.
To paraphrase a famous speech by Jimmy Carter, Alamedans appear to be experiencing a chronic case of malaise.
The right direction/wrong track question is a standard feature of public opinion polling. What is striking about the Alameda data is the dramatic fall‑off in the positive view of local conditions (as well as the similarly large increase in “mixed” views) over the last four years. Here’s a chart with the numbers:
As the chart shows, the breakdown between positive, mixed, and negative attitudes stayed relatively constant between June 2008 and June 2018. But the positive and mixed numbers began to head south in January 2020, and they fell off the cliff in the most recent survey. At the same time, the percentage of negative views stayed just about the same.
How should one interpret this data?
From one perspective, all it shows is that Alameda voters, despite the asserted distinctiveness of the Island City, are really no different than their confreres around the U.S. Indeed, if anything, our residents may be said to be more optimistic about the direction of their hometown than Americans are about the state of the nation generally: according to the latest aggregation of polling data by Real Clear Politics, only 22.7 percent of the public at large believes that the country is “headed in the right direction” – and a whopping 70.3 percent believes that it is “on the wrong track.”
This is the spin the consultants hired by the City for a $37,000 fee – Fairbanks, Maslin, Maullin, Metz, and Associates, known as FM3 – gave to the data at the May 10 Council meeting. That 31 percent “right direction” number? It didn’t surprise her, the consultant stated. “That is something that is not unique to you at all,” she said. “Up and down the west coast and across the country, there’s a very pessimistic mood among voters, and I think that the reasons why are probably pretty evident. . . .” (She promised to identify those reasons later – but never did.)
The FM3 consultant reassured the Council members that the declining “right direction” numbers and the rising mixed numbers did not reflect voter dissatisfaction with the way the City was being run – either by management or by the Council itself.
The latest report included a question – again, standard in surveys of this type – about voter approval and disapproval of the performance of those in charge at City Hall.
Here’s a chart with the approval numbers:
And here’s a chart with the disapproval numbers:
At first glance, the approval chart seems puzzling, since the “overall” approval rating is higher than the percentages for its two components (City management and elected officials). Why the whole should be greater than either of its parts is a mystery to us. Nevertheless, it’s safe to make a couple of observations about the numbers themselves.
First, the trend line is downward. True, its slope is not as steep as the line depicting the deteriorating views about the “direction of the City.” Since July 2017, however, the overall approval rating has fallen by seven percent, and the approval ratings for both City management and the mayor and council have dropped by nine percent. To look at the issue from the opposite angle, the disapproval rating has risen from 22 to 29 percent overall; 19 to 29 percent for City management, and 26 to 32 percent for the elected officials.
(If we wanted to be snide and cherry‑pick the data, we’d point out that the declining approval numbers for the mayor and council between June 2018 and February 2022 coincide with the election of Marilyn Ezzy Ashcraft as mayor and John Knox White and Tony Daysog to Council in November 2018. Beware, however, the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy.)
Second, for both approval and disapproval ratings, the mayor and Council score consistently worse than City management. Indeed, in each of four surveys taken since July 2017, voters ranked their elected officials lower than City management: a higher percentage approved staff’s performance, and disapproved the politicians’, every time. Maybe Eric Levitt should stick around and run for office instead of taking that new job in Fullerton.
This data may be a cause for . . . concern in certain circles. Democratic party strategists, we are told, are very worried that Joe Biden’s cratering approval ratings (40.6 percent in the latest NCP summary) will tank their chances of retaining control of the Senate and House in the midterms. Should Ms. Ashcraft and those promoting the “progressive” agenda start to fret because only seven percent – an all‑time low – of Alameda voters reported in February 2022 that they “strongly approve” of our current elected officials’ performance (and less than half of those polled gave them favorable marks)?
Nevertheless, the message to the incumbents and candidates is not crystal clear. The FM3 pollsters did not ask voters why they approved or disapproved of the job being done by the mayor, council, or city management. As a result, one cannot tie the ratings to any particular political leanings. A voter incensed by the failure to defund the police might disapprove of the performance by local officials on that ground. But falling into the same category would be a voter appalled by the back‑door efforts to abolish Measure A. A politician acts at her peril if she assumes that all the naysayers are dissatisfied for the same reason.
The next question sought voters’ opinions about the “quality” of various services provided by the City.
Here, with four exceptions, voters’ views haven’t changed much over the last seven years. The percentage of “good” or “excellent” ratings given to street maintenance, park facilities, fire services, library programs, and recreation programs didn’t vary by more than eight percent from December 2015 to February 2022. (The top‑rated service in the most recent survey was park facilities, which 81 percent of respondents rated as “good” or “excellent.”)
Of the four exceptions, two are particularly noteworthy: the “level of neighborhood safety,” whose “good/excellent” ratings dropped by 25 percent between December 2015 and February 2022, and the “quality of police services,” whose equivalent ratings plunged by 35 percent during the same period. Here is a chart combining the “good” and “excellent” numbers:
The data can be read to establish a linkage between the two items: as voters’ perception of neighborhood safety declines, so, too, does their opinion of police services. If residents are feeling less safe, the reason must be that the cops aren’t doing their job. (We suppose that, in theory, the causal connection could work in reverse – i.e., a more negative view of police services could lead to a more pessimistic sense of neighborhood safety – but that seems less likely.)
But there may be another explanation for the decline in voters’ positive views of the police. During the last two years, the “good/excellent” ratings for police services fell far more rapidly than the equivalent ratings for neighborhood safety (21 percent compared to nine percent). For those Alameda voters who get their news from social media (and even the East Bay Times), the coverage of the Mali Watkins and Mario Gonzalez incidents, which occurred in May 2020 and April 2021, respectively, may well have turned them against our local cops.
(For those keeping score, the other two exceptions are the City’s management of budget and finances, whose “good/excellent” ratings fell by 13 percent – from 29 percent to 16 percent – between December 2015 and February 2022, and – perplexingly – the quality of customer service at the library, whose equivalent ratings dropped by 15 percent during the same period, even though they remained in positive territory throughout.)
The last question asked voters to rank a variety of “problems” facing the City in order of severity.
Few people will be shocked by the item that has topped the list in every survey taken since June 2008: the cost of housing. What is somewhat surprising is that the percentage of voters who ranked this item as “extremely” or “very” serious actually declined by two percent between July 2017 and January 2020 and another four percent between then and February 2022. The same is true for the “problem” described as “a lack of housing affordable housing for working families,” which first appeared in the July 2017 survey, when 68 percent of voters considered it to be an “extremely” or “very” serious problem. That percentage dropped one point in the January 2020 survey and another six points in the February 2022 poll.
It would be misleading to interpret the falling numbers as refuting the oft‑proclaimed existence of a “housing crisis” in Alameda (or, to view the issue through the opposite political lens, as validating the effectiveness of the City’s rent control ordinance). After all, nearly two‑thirds of voters still regard the cost of housing, and affordable housing in particular, as an “extremely” or “very” serious problem. Nevertheless, the data suggests that fewer of them take that position now than they did in July 2017 or January 2020. Why that is so, we can’t say.
The real news in the latest survey involves the runners‑up to housing on the severe‑problem list.
The pollsters added “traffic safety on local streets and roads” as a “problem” in the January 2020 survey, and less than half of the voters (45 percent) described it as “extremely” or “very” serious. But that percentage jumped significantly – to 58 percent – in the February 2022 survey, and the item now ranks second only to housing in terms of severity.
Again, advocates at both ends of the political spectrum could cite this data to support their policy positions. Why should the City redesign its roadways to make them less friendly to automobiles? Because so many Alamedans are concerned about traffic safety and the redesign would keep cars in the garage. Why should the City look askance at new residential developments that will discharge dozens of additional vehicles onto streets filled with bikers and pedestrians? Because they would make an already severe traffic‑safety problem even more intolerable.
The other issue involves crime – and here the data is truly eye‑catching. Take a look at the chart combining the numbers for those who consider crime to be an “extremely” or “very” serious problem:
There is, to put it mildly, something of a disconnect here. According to the information posted on the City’s website, the crime rate has not increased substantially in recent years despite the voters’ perceptions that the problem has grown much more severe. Although so‑called Part I crimes (e.g., robbery) increased slightly during the four years between fiscal years 2016‑17 and 2020‑21 (by 8.5 percent, from 2,625 to 2,849), Part II crimes (e.g., disturbing the peace) actually decreased 26 percent (from 2,450 to 1,813) during the same period.
So are Alameda voters paranoid – or just stupid? We don’t think either accusation would be fair. Rather, when one drills down into the data, one sees that the types of crimes that affect the ordinary citizen as she goes about her daily life in fact have been going up. For example, auto thefts rose from 403 in FY 2016‑17 to 628 in FY 2020‑21, and thefts of items valued at more than $400 went from 681 in FY 2016‑7 to 945 in FY 2020‑21. One can hardly blame a voter whose car – or catalytic converter – recently was stolen from perceiving that crime indeed has become an “extremely” or “very” serious problem in Alameda.
During the May 10 Council meeting, those on the dais spent very little time discussing any of the data about voter perceptions presented by FM3. But we’ll bet their campaign consultants will be scrutinizing it with care. (We’ll know for sure when we get the first mailer touting Mr. Daysog as “Alameda’s Crime‑Fighting Councilman.”) And, to the extent that our elected officials acknowledge a duty to represent their constituents rather than simply to advance the “progressive” agenda, the data would be worth a few minutes of their attention as well.
December 2015 survey: Community survey (December 2015)
July 2017 survey: FM3, Quality of Life Community Survey (July 2017)
February 2018: FM3, Bond Measure Survey (January-February 2018)
June 2018: Community survey (June 2018)
January 2020: 2020-03-17 Ex. 2 to staff report – Survey Results
February 2022: 2022-05-10 Ex. 2 to staff report – Survey Results