What the voters think

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:

Direction of the City chart V2

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.

Well, maybe.

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:Crime chart V2

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

About Robert Sullwold

Partner, Sullwold & Hughes Specializes in investment litigation
This entry was posted in City Hall, Housing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to What the voters think

  1. Publius says:

    Concerning the last graph of the percentage of voters who think crime is a serious problem, it’s not so much a disconnect from overall crime rates so much as it a natural reaction to one type of crime: crime that involves guns.

    Shooting incidents rose several fold in 2020-21. There were two high profile DAYTIME shootings on Park St, a home sprayed with gunfire on the West End, several muggings at gunpoint (again, some in broad daylight), a carjacking in which the victim was shot and many others. Gun crime went from seldom and blessedly rare to distressingly common in very short order. This flood of shootings occurred while the police force was severely understaffed, though one councilmember has energetically denied any correlation between the two.

    Simply put, when gun crimes skyrocket, people feel far less safe. They care very little that larceny and other numbers may be down when frequency of gunfire is ballooning. Looked at that way, it’s not a disconnect at all.

  2. Observer says:

    I attribute this fissure in Alameda politics to three major factors, or events:

    1. The Jill Keimach Affair
    2. Rent Control
    3. Trish Spencer

    We know the fire union started exerting more influence in local politics after the city shuttered one of their fire stations and laid off critical personnel. “Never again.” Ensuring the city gives consideration to a preferred candidate was what led to the Keimach fallout and a $900K golden parachute plus legal costs. This, in turn, was constantly used as a cudgel by the local conservatives to hammer on the progressive members of the city council, creating a political divide. Jim Oddie was successfully voted out.

    With rent prices increasing rapidly and long-time families getting thrown out of their homes, the progressives became galvanized to do something to restore housing stability. This created a lot of hostility between the haves and the have nots, and some incredibly expensive campaigns totaling over $600,000. A lot of people on both sides are still very sore about this.

    And then there’s Trish Spencer. She is Alameda’s Marjorie Taylor Greene. Ironically dubbing herself “The People’s Mayor,” Spencer has a history of sowing chaos and division within Alameda’s population by beating down on minimum wage workers, teachers, homeless people, LGBTQ+ students, and so on. When she loses, she never actually loses or calls for unity – she doubles down. She never conceded her loss as mayor and even kept introducing herself as “the mayor” to people. When she lost her expensive special election in 2019, she refused to accept the results and instead cajoled people to try and overturn the results through bureaucratic maneuvers. The 2 short years that Trish was off of the council in 2018-2020 were among the most productive years in city governance and was a time for healing. Her election in 2020 brought back the hostility and endless sniping on the (virtual) dais. While I secretly enjoy watching the petty bickering between Ashcraft and Spencer, it has not been good for the city and we clearly see this in the poll results above.

    • Common Sense says:

      Wow. What a terrible take. Trish Spencer is the most “elected” of any current Alameda politician, having served two terms on the school board, as mayor, and as a current city council member.

      Not only were the two years without Trish Spencer not productive, they actually set the stage for the surge in homelessness, the rise in crime, and the plunge in citizen confidence in elected officials. Besides the shootings, crime is way way up. People just don’t report it anymore, because the perception is that the police won’t do anything.

      Trish Spencer is a sensible politician who rightfully questions city policy, and warns against costly spending unlike the rest of the city council who spend time renaming parks and streets, changing the definition of “manhole” covers, groveling for developer and construction union contributions, and blowing up traffic while plunging the city into costly litigation as detailed by the Grand Jury. You should be sophisticated enough to know that progressive politics, as practiced by JKW,Vella, Ashcraft and others is purposefully divisive, so as to provide the grist for their political mill- constantly crying about defunding the police, “greedy” landlords, racist, homophobic and transphobic NIMBYS, white supremicists, and if that’s not enough Trump supporters….

      But these tactics are not working anymore. See pole results showing only 31% think we are moving in the “right direction.” Maybe there’s some hope, as it appears progressivism has peaked. JKW chose not to run again. Chesa Boudin will be recalled tomorrow. In a few months so will George Gascon in LA.

      • Observer says:

        Sorry but Trish Spencer is not “the most elected” person. She won as mayor only by a fluke, winning by 129 votes against a popular incumbent who didn’t bother running a real campaign because of an illness in her family. And Trish did it again against Jim Oddie, only because Amos White split Oddie’s progressive bloc and gave Trish Spencer only 66 votes to win. Trish Spencer has been the luckiest person in Alameda’s electoral history to win not once but twice by the narrowest of margins under two very lucky circumstances.

        Ashcraft beat Trish Spencer easily by 1,425 votes, and this blowout would’ve been far greater if Frank Matarrese hadn’t split Ashcraft’s progressive support.

    • Wiilam says:

      Very interesting analysis. You may be correct and your content seems to support that you are. Trish is an odd individual and has caused one very capable citizens to leave Alameda. People are uneducated and unaware, thus people like Trish somehow get elected.

      • Common Sense says:

        Geez Observer- another terrible take. Mataresse wasn’t a progressive, he didn’t “split” any progressive vote, and he actually had no chance to win, only to deny TrishSpencer reelection. The only reasonable question to ask is why did he want Ashcraft to win that much?

        And all your obfuscation can’t hide the fact Trish won four elections.

      • No to Trish, No to MTG says:

        “People are uneducated and unaware.” You can say that again. I was stunned by how close Measure B is to defeat. Lots of voters suddenly learning about bank financing, as if they have never paid attention to how a mortgage works before. It would be no surprise if most of them support our local Marjorie Taylor Greene as well.

  3. William says:

    Another excellent report Robert. Research can be used in some many ways and politicians use it to their benefit most of the time. The questions that are used take in to a account the lack of knowledge most voters have about issues and candidates. The current Council is an indication that Alameda citizens are out of touch with what the important issues are. Knee jerk reactions and personal opinions drive their actions. Maybe questions like these could be of greater value? 1) Does it appear to you that City Council members and Management have the appropriate skills to effectively manage our city? 2) In your opinion, has City Council and Management defined well enough who Alameda is and where the City is headed? 3) Are City Services effective in addressing issues most important to you?
    It appears that we no longer have a “an adult in the room.”

    • Observer says:

      The word is out that Alameda is a very tough city to manage, with a very disharmonious city council and a very “politically engaged” citizenry (Alameda Citizens Taskforce, AAPS, BWA, NIMBYs and YIMBYs). It has been very hard for us to recruit A-level candidates for city manager, usually getting only Cs and Ds. We’ve had volatile leadership and the less than collegial relations among the council and between the council and senior staff. Russo was great, kept thing smooth and functioning. The city staff absolutely dislikes Trish Spencer because of how she circumvents around everything rather than going through the normal channels and constantly pulls consent items to waste staff time, and that creates a ripple effect through the entire city government.

      The city needs a strong city manager, but to do that we need a good city council that gets along with each other and with city staff.

      • Imi says:

        Recall the misconduct that cost the city $1 million? It was reported across CA media how Vella and Odie tried to intimidate the city manager. If anything, this would be why candidates may be vary.

  4. Publius says:

    One suspects homelessness plays into the “direction of the city” graph.

    For several years, Alamedans have seen a dystopian hellscape of camps metastasize just over the line in Oakland. Every day they seem to grow larger and more full of wraith-like addicts and mountains of trash. Seeing that so close to home is troubling enough, but while the situation in Oakland has blown up, instead of trying to hold camps at bay, our city is making every effort to welcome more homelessness here. Without a direct question about homelessness in the poll, it is impossible to know how much of the downturn in sentiment is tied to it, but it surely must be a significant contributor to the malaise.

    • WTF Alameda says:

      Yay, another homeless bashing comment on Sullwold’s blog. How original. The fact that you think homelessness could not possibly materialize within our own city but has to come from somewhere else shows how incredibly out of touch you are with your own neighbors. We have 10,000 Alamedans living below the poverty line. With inflation and increasing cost of housing, is it any wonder that homelessness is on the rise everywhere. According to APD, most of those camping in Jean Sweeney were former Alameda dwellers (renters who lost their homes or kicked out or escaping domestic violence situation). And I feel bad for the city government – if they attempt to do anything to solve the problem, it’s seen as “making every effort to welcome more homelessness.” If they do nothing, things get worse. Damn if you do, damn if you don’t.

      • Imi says:

        We have 200 beds in our shelter. Are you saying we have more than 200 residents of Alameda in such situations? Let’s not take advantage of real human suffering to advance your political agenda.

  5. Franco Pantofola says:

    The stats and comments confirm why the Big Island is rapidly taking on water. The Progs are trying to take down America and their efforts are certainly well underway in Alameda.

    It may be too late to call 911 for Alameda. Sad. Real sad.

  6. Imi says:

    It’s frustrating when residents just need to expect that majority council is hiding the real agenda.

  7. Imi says:

    Did everyone know that the “wellness” center on $100 McKay is actually a respite center that will save insurance companies millions but residents have no transparency as to all the financial and safety liabilities of serving 400 adults with the understandably issues of homelessness like drug addiction, mental illness, and some criminal behavior as an early release inmate? And why are we duplicating services when a respite center with various locations near hospitals already exist? No wonder CA’s billions on the homeless make no dent.

  8. Imi says:

    Are residents aware that the McKay “wellness” center is actually a respite center that insurance company love? Insurance companies save millions by odd loading the homeless from hospitals to the respite center transferring the burdens to lucky Alameda residents who have no idea on all financial and safety liabilities of serving understandably difficult issues of drug addiction, mental health and possibly criminal behavior if the early released prisoners. It’s also ballooned from $30 million project to $100 million. And best of all, respite centers already exist in Oakland that provide the same services with various locations near hospitals that serve many homeless. It’s no wonder CA taxpayers have been paying billions and billions that only seem to encourage homelessness to grow.

  9. Imi says:

    Council who really care about the homeless need to work in Oakland. Stop pretending we have a crisis here in Alameda. Our crisis is democracy and how residents have no say, misinformed, and tricked into funding projects that have no benefit for residents and often have long lasting risks to our fiscal health and safety.

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