The first in-depth poll of the 2010 New Orleans mayor's race says a lot of very positive things about the city's electorate, and those who aspire to be mayor should pay close attention to its results. Above all, the poll should serve as a warning to those who may be tempted to exploit perceived racial divisions among New Orleans voters: Don't, because the voters aren't buying it.
On almost every major issue, the survey by Tulane University and Democracy Corps found that African-American and white voters in New Orleans are remarkably aligned in their opinions — from crime to education, jobs and economic growth to levees, and yes, even race relations.
"I am very impressed by the degree of unity with which New Orleanians view things," says veteran Democratic political consultant James Carville, who teaches an advanced political science class at Tulane that served as a springboard for the poll. "We have differences, but we are much more alike than we are different."
The survey was taken by the firm of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner. Stanley Greenberg co-funded Democracy Corps with Carville in 1999 as an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to making government more responsive to people. To see the complete survey, go to http://www.democracycorps.com/download.php?attachment=dcor-neworleans.pdf.
The survey was taken April 5-14 and included in-depth interviews with 1,008 likely 2010 mayoral voters. It has a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3.1 percent. Most citywide surveys have sample sizes of 400 to 500 voters. The higher sample in the Democracy Corps poll gives it greater accuracy and allows those with access to the poll's "cross-tabs" to plumb the depths of voters' opinions to a much greater degree than polls with smaller samples.
The fact that crime is the overarching issue on voters' minds is no surprise. What's encouraging if not surprising is that black and white voters see crime as the top priority for the next mayor and City Council in virtually equal proportions — 22 percent of black voters cited it as the city's No. 1 priority; 19 percent of whites did likewise. Those numbers are well within the survey's margin of error and the difference is thus statistically insignificant.
Ditto for education: 18 percent among blacks; 16 percent among whites.
Jobs and economic development: 11 percent among blacks; 13 percent among whites.
Even neighborhood redevelopment, which some see as a lightning rod: 9 percent among blacks; 7 percent among whites.
Levees: 6 percent among blacks as well as whites.
The only two issues on which blacks and whites place different priorities are "corruption in city government" and "affordable housing." Only 7 percent of black voters cited corruption as the top issue, compared to 17 percent of whites. Conversely, 9 percent of blacks named affordable housing as the top priority, compared to only 3 percent of whites.
Note, however, that the survey's aim with that question was to identify voters' single top priority for the next mayor and council. The differences don't mean that black voters see corruption as unimportant; they just see some other issues as more important. Ditto for whites on the question of affordable housing.
As proof of my conclusion, note that a separate question solely on the impact of corruption found whites and blacks largely in agreement. Voters were asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement, "The rest of America looks down on New Orleans because of our corruption and failed leadership." Among black respondents, 72 percent agreed with that statement to some degree, as did 83 percent of whites. Among those who "strongly agreed" with that statement, the results were even closer: 53 percent of blacks strongly agreed with it, as did 49 percent of whites. Thus, black and white voters overwhelmingly perceive "corruption" and "failed leadership" (read: Ray Nagin) as a serious problem in New Orleans.
Equally important, blacks and whites are in complete agreement as regards New Orleans' historic racial divide: 54 percent of whites and 54 of blacks say that it "prevents our political leaders from making progress on the major problems facing the city."
This is important, because The Times-Picayune did an awful job of covering the poll in last Friday's (April 24) editions. In fact, the T-P portrayed the poll as reaching exactly the opposite conclusion that Carville and the pollsters reached. The paper's headline screamed, "New Poll Shows Sharp Racial Divide."
Shame on the T-P for such a sloppy headline. In fact, the T-P did such a bad job of covering this important story that it has offered Carville space on this Sunday's op-ed page. I'm glad the paper's leadership is willing to recognize when the paper screwed up, and I look forward to Carville's op-ed piece. Hopefully, it will be read by a lot more people than Friday's Metro page one story. At a minimum, it will be more enlightening.
As regards the poll and the "racial divide," there was only one issue on which black and white voters take polar opposite views — the so-called "footprint" question of whether flooded-out neighborhoods ought to be allowed to rebuild. Blacks oppose the notion of "shrinking the footprint" by a margin of 74 percent to 24 percent, whereas whites favor it by a margin of 64 percent to 31 percent.
But guess what? That result doesn't matter, because the "footprint" issue has already been decided. Every neighborhood has the right to rebuild. End of discussion.
The T-P also portrayed voter opinions on Mayor Ray Nagin as divided along racial lines, but that also misrepresents the results. Overall, black as well as white voters disapprove of the job Nagin is doing — whites simply disapprove of him in larger proportions. Among blacks, 47 percent disapprove; 41 percent approve. Among whites, 92 percent disapprove; 6 percent approve. The difference is statistically significant, but it's one of degree, not direction.
I'm going to write more blog posts about this poll in the coming days, because it contains wealth of information that's worthy of analysis. Until then, I'll close with some on-point comments by Carville:
"When you read this poll," Carville says, "it makes you proud to live here." Carville lives in New Orleans with his wife, Republican consultant Mary Matalin, and their two daughters. "Voters are paying very close attention, and they know what they want," he added. "As New Orleanians, we just gotta make sure we get what we want."