In more typical political times, which these are not, politicians had to be popular to get elected.
That may sound silly, because of course they still have to get more than half the votes to win. But it once was conventional wisdom that a politician was in trouble if their polling approval rating wasn’t substantially positive. Not anymore.
“Now we can’t find anybody who is popular,” says Ron Dotzauer, who heads the Seattle political consulting firm Strategies 360. “Except one.”
Gov. Jay Inslee is at minus 7 approval — meaning more people frown on his job performance right now (51%) than approve of it (44%). President Joe Biden is even up, 48%-48% — decidedly “meh” in a state he won by 19 points.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray is only plus 4 — not terrible, also not great for someone up for reelection. Democrats in Congress are even. Republicans in Congress are minus 21 points. The Seattle City Council is minus 29, and the state’s negative North Star, Donald Trump, clocks in at minus 30 percentage points.
That the Seattle City Council is as deep under water as Trump sums up the extremes of our disaffected tribal politics, Dotzauer said. The poll judging the council was conducted only in the city, while the one judging Trump was statewide.
It’s intriguing that there’s one outlier — the Seattle mayor, Bruce Harrell. He’s been on the job nine months, and voters on balance still like him. His job approval rating inside the city is plus 19, with 49% approving and only 30% disapproving.
This is why almost all of the mojo in city politics right now is coming from his floor of City Hall, not the City Council’s.
But the poll, the only one in recent months to delve into how Seattle is thinking on a range of issues, also shows how tenuous the new mayor’s honeymoon is.
When asked how Harrell is doing on the big challenges facing the city, Seattle voters gave him lackluster marks. On homelessness, only 31% said Harrell is doing a good job, while 58% said he is not.
“I think what this means is people are giving him some time, because he just got there, but also there are already signs that they aren’t seeing enough progress,” Dotzauer said.
How much time do you think he has before people may reassess, I asked?
“Maybe six months,” Dotzauer said.
Tough crowd, this city — and brutal on mayors in particular.
My sense is that the mayor — the region, really — has been making some progress on homelessness. It was a good sign for instance that the city and county-created agency along with the feds came together the other day to launch an emergency command center, to treat the issue with the urgency of an earthquake or hurricane.
But leaders here first declared homelessness to be an emergency in 2015, three mayors ago. That it took seven years to finally start acting like it is may be why voters are restless.
Seattle voters also seem highly conflicted. About half of poll respondents said the city needs tougher policies on street homelessness, while the other half said the city either needs to be more sympathetic or is taking about the right approach. So after all these years we’re split on what the city’s basic posture ought to be.
On crime, the poll asked which statement below people agree with more, even if neither is exactly right. Some also answered “neither” or “both”:
- The best way to keep our community safe is to enforce the law, support police, and give police the resources they need to crack down on criminals who commit violent crimes.
- Or: The best way to keep our community safe is to build trust between people and law enforcement, hold police accountable, and invest in crime prevention programs.
Though Seattle has hit a 25-year high in violent crime, Seattleites still chose the second option — the softer, less cop-centric one — by 50% to 39%. Voters under age 50 chose it by a whopping 21 points.
To me the right answer to this question is “both.” We need police to crack down on violence and gun crime, as well as prevention and alternative approaches for more minor crimes. But only 8% chose “both.”
You can see why people on all sides might be dissatisfied, though, because the city has effectively done “neither.” They haven’t really enforced the laws with a robust police presence or stood up nonpolice alternatives.
In the great debate about whether to go hard or soft on crime, critics outside the city say “hard” — and are bombarding us with political ads about it. Seattle residents continue to tilt more toward “soft.” The city itself has been stuck betwixt and between.
Harrell appears set on a “both” strategy — he wants to hire a lot more cops and also has plans, supposedly starting next year, for an unarmed alternative.
“He’s the only one around who has the public’s goodwill, at least for now,” Dotzauer says. “That still matters. But whatever his approach, whether it’s getting tough or taking the more gentle route of crime prevention, he’s just got to be a lot more aggressive about it.”
Can one be aggressively gentle? I don’t know, but in our turbulent political times it would seem to be the precise needle that Bruce Harrell needs to thread.