By Erica C. Barnett
The head of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, Rachel Smith, expressed optimism during a press briefing to roll out the Chamber’s latest poll, which concludes that a supermajority of Seattle residents “actively” considered moving last year and that only one in four people would feel safe going downtown after dark. “This data shows us that the voters know what’s going on in our community, they understand it, they have complex reactions to it, and fundamentally, they want action… and I think that’s good news for the kind of leadership that they need,” Smith said.
The editorial board of the Seattle Times didn’t take long to read between the lines, publishing an editorial that called the poll a “cold-water shock” that should prompt the City Council to take a hardline approach to crime and homelessness. The Times piece paid particular attention to a poll question about encampment sweeps, gloating that “[e]ven 55% of the dozens of self-identified Socialists in the poll said the ‘stop all sweeps’ idea is wrong.”
As with all polls, though, how you ask the question matters. The Chamber’s question about encampments was particularly misleading, creating a false choice between an option that does not currently exist in the city of Seattle—offering appropriate housing or shelter, along with health care, treatment, and other services that meet the needs of people living outdoors, and only then asking them to move—and the most extreme “no sweeps under any circumstances” option. Would you rather “provide outreach and offer shelter and services to individuals before closing encampments,” or do you agree that “no individual should be moved unless they agree to alternative shelter or housing”? Given that false choice between two options that no one in city government has proposed, it’s little wonder that both socialists and self-identified Democrats overwhelmingly picked the former.
The pandemic has raised the level of discontent across the nation, so it can be easy to forget that just two years ago, national pundits were waving around polls saying people planned to flee San Francisco and New York City to move here.
Similarly, the poll set up a question about police spending in terms that pitted an option most voters would consider reasonable—hiring better-trained police while implementing “alternative policing and sentencing programs”—with one many people would consider an extreme approach: Decriminalizing all nonviolent misdemeanors and eliminating police. Not surprisingly, just 23 percent of respondents said the city should legalize misdemeanors and get rid of the cops.
So what can such a poll tell us? Questions about whether the city is on the right track or the wrong track, whether people have considered moving somewhere else, and whether people trust the city council perennially receive responses suggesting that everything is worse than ever, and that the city council, which has far less power in Seattle’s political system than people generally assume, is to blame. (Having covered such polls for the better part of 20 years, I can’t recall a single example of a business group releasing a poll showing that voters think things are going great and that they trust the council more than they would a random guy on the street).
In a sense, surveys like this one serve as early indicators of how people will feel about (or whether they will vote for) policies that business groups support, like increased police funding, crackdowns on homelessness, and tax breaks. They are less useful, however, at predicting things like how many people actually will leave Seattle (Republicans perennially say they plan to leave, and yet here they still are) and whether people are, individually, happier living here than they would be somewhere else. The pandemic has raised the level of discontent across the nation, so it can be easy to forget that just two years ago, national pundits were waving around polls saying people planned to flee San Francisco and New York City to move here.
And because many questions are designed in a way that produces maximal results for certain outcomes, it can be hard to tease out what voters are actually “saying.” When 61 percent of voters identify homelessness as the issue that they are “most concerned or frustrated about,” that response almost certainly includes people who actively work against encampment sweeps as well as those who are annoyed at the sight of tents on the freeway.
Questions about “crime and public safety,” similarly, look different from the perspective of someone living in a neighborhood deeply impacted by gun violence and the owner of a $2 million house in Laurelhurst who hears about what’s happening in the “inner city” from their local TV fearmonger.
And, as always, there are internal contradictions: Most people agree that the city to spend more money on all sorts of things, including behavioral health care and homelessness solutions, but also overwhelmingly oppose more taxes to pay for all that new spending uamid a $150 million deficit.
The poll did include one somewhat surprising result: Most people, including homeowners, say they support “more housing” not just along commercial streets but in their own neighborhoods. There’s a caveat for that one, though, too: The Chamber only asked about duplexes and triplexes, not apartments; had they asked homeowners whether they would welcome a three-story apartment building next door, they might have gotten a much different response.