Michael Hendrix joins Brian Anderson to discuss the Manhattan Institute’s polling of U.S. metro areas, the public-policy issues that commanded majority support, and the political implications for both parties.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Michael Hendrix. Michael's a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, as well as MI's director of state and local policy. He writes regularly for City Journal.

In a recent piece, The Emerging Metropolitan Majority?, with a question mark, he took a look at some of the polling that MI has conducted in cities across the country. That polling shows what this week's elections in Virginia, Buffalo, Seattle, and elsewhere appear to confirm: that a growing number of Americans support a common-sense agenda on public safety, cost-of-living, and educational issues. I will say this is our first broadcast from our reopened offices, which is very exciting. So, Michael, thanks very much for being here in person and for joining us on 10 Blocks.

Michael Hendrix: It's very exciting, especially to be in-person in these new offices.

Brian Anderson: So let's take a look at those poll numbers and discuss some of their implications, which as I read them are pretty far-reaching. You've conducted a poll of residents at the 20 fastest growing metropolitan areas in the U.S. So in addition to New York, L.A., and San Francisco, what were some of the other cities you've looked at?

Michael Hendrix: So we looked at the 20 numerically fastest growing metros. So that includes some of the big cities, New York, Los Angeles, but it also includes fast-growing hubs like Austin, Charlotte, Denver. Miami is also part of this. So, we were really able to get a broad swath of America and America's leading metros.

What this leaves out are maybe some of the Rust Belt metros. This leaves out some other places, but it really gives us a good sense of what it's like in these places that are part of the future of America. And we wanted to get a sense, what are their concerns, and what are they persuadable on? And I think that really is what stands out here.

Brian Anderson: Well, what were some of the topline findings?

Michael Hendrix: Cost, crime, and classroom issues were really the leading concerns for the 20 fastest growing metros in America and the residents there. So, just to unpack that a little bit more. Just housing costs and homelessness alone, those far outranked concerns that you might think these residents would also rank high. So Covid-19, or taxes, jobs, education, public safety, those are great concerns, don't get me wrong. But housing costs and homelessness far, far outranked them.

So the cost of living, being able to stay where you are, it's a big concern. The other one, crime, six in 10 say crime is rising in their area. And many also see a lack of police presence in their area as a big concern. And when we asked them, "What are you willing to support on reform?" Empowering the police, broadly supported. And other reforms that really fit under that bucket, broadly supported.

The other thing, classroom issues. Folks are really not content with the state of education today. And they are clearly persuadable by arguments on school choice and charters. So, they're really open to reform. There's actually a lot of interesting findings just on education alone, which I hope we'll get into. But I just really think to tie this up into a bow, two of the things really stood out.

One is that on these local issues, you really see residents crossing partisan divides. So clearly today we are split, we are polarized on partisan, really partisan issues. But when it comes to things like school choice and curriculum issues, or housing reform, police, law enforcement questions, there's a surprising amount of bipartisanship.

And also, there aren't really neat ethnic or racial divides. So, on a question like homelessness, 76 percent of black parents express deep concern about this issue. Or on a stronger local police presence, a sizeable chunk of Asian respondents support having more police in their area, don't want fewer police in their area. So I really think for us, we got a big takeaway that we're seeing support for an urban opportunity agenda that really speaks to a multiethnic and bi-partisan mainstream, and a message for local leaders to stay focused on the basics. To fix it, first focus on the basics, because really that's what folks care about.

Brian Anderson: Well, this would imply that there's going to be certain electoral results or policy outcomes that we would be pretty supportive of. Are you seeing any evidence of that yet?

Michael Hendrix: Well, one of the things that I just wrote on for City Journal was Austin. So Austin, they do have a relatively progressive mayor, a relatively progressive city council. In fact, there's a communist who's a member of the city council. You would think that in a place like that, their agenda on homelessness, which really comes down to a laissez-faire, let anything go on the streets kind of approach, would potentially be supported by the same population that put these folks into office, but that's not what we see.

And when you actually go to citizens who see the concerns that they have for human beings on the streets who are dying, who are being injured in significant numbers, after the city council and the mayor voted to legalize homeless encampments on the streets and in public areas, voted to legalize panhandling. When folks in Austin had the chance to actually go and vote, they said, "We don't want that. We don't want homeless encampments everywhere. We don't want to feel unsafe. We don't want these folks really being hurt by the progressive agenda in Austin."

So, when you go to the citizens directly, or when you have an issue that really breaks through partisan lines, breaks through just kind of the lack of local reporting that's out there now, you really see folks willing to stand up for change. And I think it's not just on citizen referendums. We're even seeing, forget partisan ID. We're seeing in a place like Seattle, where according to our survey 90 percent of Seattle residents in the metro area are strongly, deeply concerned about homelessness, that homelessness is also translating into a leading issue in the mayoral race.

And so, the candidates who support doing something about homelessness and not letting folks just rot on the street, mayoral candidates who are willing to support common sense police reforms, willing to support small businesses, those are the ones who are leading. And I think that that's something that should be a message. Again, whether you have an R or a D after your name, whether you lean left or right in a non-partisan election, this should give you as a candidate, and should give the citizens, a sense that if they stand up for common sense solutions, they'll get a surprising amount of support.

Brian Anderson: And you could certainly explain the success of Eric Adams in the Democratic primary and his leading in the polls for the mayoral race this year against this backdrop, right? Because he ran a fairly pragmatic centrist campaign.

Michael Hendrix: That's right, that's right. He said in the race consistently that he wanted to create an environment for growth, and he believed that a prerequisite of prosperity was public safety. And this is something that we've seen not just in our metro majority pool, but in all the polling that we've done in the lead up to the mayoral race, people in New York are concerned about crime. They're concerned about a lack of police presence, about defunding the police. Even if they say they support defunding the police, they don't want to defund and remove police from their local neighborhood. At most it's, "Defund for thee, but not for me," at worst.

So Adams really seems to be speaking to and for these concerns on crime issues. Even on another issue that was really big in our poll for metro majority, homelessness, he just came out with a plan for homelessness, converting hotels into homeless housing. Other things that he speaks about, taxes. Taxes are a deep, deep concern that we see in our poll.

And this is something that also crosses partisan divides and any sort of racial divides. When Eric Adams claimed the Democratic primary for mayor, it really seems like he did so on the backs of those who aren't living in Manhattan, who do speak for those who are the black and Hispanic working class. For those folks we were seeing in our polls, they don't sound like white progressives. They don't sound like the activists who claim to be speaking for them. That's also a message that Eric Adams has consistently been saying. He says, "Don't look to Twitter, actually look to what folks are saying on the streets," and he speaks for them.

Brian Anderson: So you polled 4,000 people, 20 different metropolitan statistical areas. How different were the patterns regionally, or were you finding similar results everywhere? I'm thinking of San Francisco, incredibly bad homeless problem there. Are we starting to see political shifts there? How did the pattern shake out?

Michael Hendrix: There is clear variation on issues like housing and homelessness, that clearly are top of mind for metro residents. You see homelessness being an incredibly important issue in San Francisco. You see it being an incredibly important issue in Seattle. But less so in the Sunbelt, less so in Texas and Florida, places like that. That really, I think, speaks to another, even bigger divide just across the board.

There was a Sunbelt versus non-Sunbelt divide. Sort of the Sunbelt versus the coasts. That was a really big issue. So, it's sunny in the Sunbelt, gloomy everywhere beyond. And just comparing Seattle to Dallas-Fort Worth, I think, is useful for pointing that out. So in Seattle, the top concerns were cost of living, rising crime, poor quality of life. Big, big concerns. And then just flip that, reverse it, and those are precisely the areas where Dallas-Fort Worth area does well. And so, that was a big regional variation.

I think that there's also a big variation you could see not just in housing and homelessness, but on education. So, you see a place like Las Vegas, where there's deep concern for the quality of public schools. Whereas, in a place like Orlando, which by the way has more school choice, folks are relatively supportive of their public schools there. They gave them relatively high marks. Across Texas, you see Texas schools getting relatively good marks.

I think that that's something that we see. Basically, if you think that there is a concern that's reaching headlines, where local issues are breaking through the noise, breaking through the national kind of noise, the partisanship that distracts us all the time, when those issues come to the fore, you really see that in our poll results.

Brian Anderson: I think we'd agree that if a mayoral candidate were to translate these findings into a policy platform of some kind, we'd be encouraged by that, whether the candidate was, as you note, a Republican or a Democrat. But let's consider some of the political implications of the poll.

You've probably followed the debate on the left over the issues the Democrats should be focusing on in order to win elections. So the analyst, David Shor, represents one pole of that debate. So he argues that the Democrats should be focusing on ideas that are actually popular with voters. So proposals to reduce drug costs, rather than positions such as defunding the police, or climate change, that are more popular among the advocacy groups and the professional journalist class and other elites, but not among most Americans.

For those folks, defunding the police, fighting climate change, that's the most necessary thing that needs to be done. So that's the principled position to take, popularity be damned. How do you see that developing in this context? Which way is the Democratic Party going to go in cities? Are they going to go the route of defund the police, climate change, the more radical position, or are they going to go the Eric Adams route and become more centrist, let's say?

Michael Hendrix: Well, a lot of that comes down to the individual cities and each of the Democratic parties. We're seeing at the same time that, for instance in Eric Adams' claiming the Democratic primary nod, you see up in Buffalo almost the opposite result, where a Socialist was able to claim the nod.

Now, interestingly enough, in Buffalo, the mayoral race was between a write-in campaign from the relatively moderate incumbent, versus the one who claimed the Democratic nod. And so, I think that even where progressive-

Brian Anderson: The Democratic nominee being the one who was the socialist.

Michael Hendrix: Who was the socialist, I think that even in places where progressives have been able to win, or been able to get support from the Democratic Party, which is to say often the activist base, the most kind of partisan winger part of the party, that even so, that doesn't necessarily mean that they represent a broad swath of the electorate.

The thing we're really finding is that on local issues, it's hard to see that there's a clear Democratic or Republican way for you to win on particular issues. There is arguably one good way to pick up the trash. It's to pick it up. Now, maybe there's going to be some variation on policing issues. That's clearly a big one. But on a lot of local issues, it's not clearly as partisan.

So every time these candidates come in and try to make it hyper-partisan, try to run on national issues and not be responsive to local issues, maybe that will win them one election, maybe that will win them a primary nod. But I think it's questionable whether that is a long-term, sustainable approach to governance. And potentially, I think especially if these progressives win, as we're seeing in some cities, they win, and they take that as an opportunity to push policies that aren't broadly popular, try to ram them through.

I think we're seeing that the crazier the idea is, the more out there they are, and when they try to ram them through in a way that the electorate really doesn't want, that they're really risking electoral defeat. I think you're seeing that in Austin, I think you're seeing that in other cities.

One thing that's really important though is making sure that we pay close attention to opportunities for reforming urban democracy. It's something that I know in City Journal we've published a lot of pieces on. Reforming local democracy is absolutely critical to getting new voices to stand up, not just as voters, but as candidates.

I think the message from our poll is that there is a wide swath of urban voters who are persuadable by pragmatic policies, and that there's an opportunity for new local voices to emerge, Republican or Democrat. And I think that it's a terrain in which moderates and conservatives can truly engage.

Brian Anderson: Well, we published a piece a few months back by Johns Hopkins professor Steven Teles, on urban democracy. It was part of the series you refer to. And his argument was exactly what you're saying, that if the hard left progressives take over city governance, they're going to alienate voters potentially and create at least an opportunity for perhaps moderate Republicans to start becoming competitive in some of these cities by emphasizing popular issues like the ones that are in this poll. So is that a plausible future? I think you would agree it is.

Michael Hendrix: I would agree that it is. And I think if Republicans show up and compete and press on issues that people care about locally, they can be competitive. I'm not saying they'll win, but they can be competitive. Let's also just take an issue that is, in our poll, deeply divided across partisan lines, critical race theory.

This is something that City Journal's and Manhattan Institute's own Chris Rufo has been doing a lot of work on. We found more than half of the respondents support removing lessons based on CRT from public school curriculum. And when you ask parents that question, it's a 42-point margin in favor of removing those lessons on CRT. So even on an issue that is as hyper-partisan as that, you can find interesting patterns of support. There's also a strong majority support from black and Hispanic parents in removing these CRT lessons. And we define what CRT is.

So, I think that's important. Broadly, focus on issues that are where you can find a pragmatic, persuadable majority. That does exist. But even on hot-button issues where folks are beginning to stand up, pay attention, show up to the school board meetings, even on those hot-button issues, there's an opportunity, I think, for the right to become competitive.

It is true, of course, that density and diplomas are increasingly correlated with Democratic vote share. That's been particularly true over the past generation, roughly 20 years or so. Before that, though, there were many Republicans who led major cities. That also included New York City. I think that this is not necessarily then a sign that Democrats will continue to own cities and have complete lack of competition in perpetuity. Being elected and being popular on the right is not impossible.

Just ask Mayor Francis Suarez in Miami, who was dubbed the mayor of the new capital of America. Or Mattie Parker in Fort Worth, Texas, which is a large city, by the way, and an incredibly large metro, who as a 37-year-old ran and won on a platform of prosperity and safety.

So I think even in increasingly progressive cities, Republicans can find momentum if a marginal slice of activists continue picking crazy candidates and crazy issues. And they can certainly run in places like Fort Worth, or Miami, or others, where it's honestly a much more diverse electorate and you can run on local issues, prosperity and safety, especially.

Brian Anderson: Very interesting, Michael. What kind of further polling do you have in the works, if any?

Michael Hendrix: Well, we have more work in cities. We don't have polling outlined specifically just yet, but we're going to be doing more of it, I promise you. A lot of what we're doing now under metropolitan majority is going into individual cities where these hot-button issues have really crept to the surface, homelessness in Austin, housing costs in L.A., education and classroom issues in Dallas-Fort Worth and Texas broadly.

Going into those metros and saying, "Let's find those folks who are standing up and trying to make a difference. Let's equip them with policy ideas, reform options, and equip these allies for impact." I think that we can really make a difference in cities across this country, and speak for and help the metro majority speak up on these issues. And I think that they and we can really make a difference.

Brian Anderson: Thank you, Michael. Please check out Michael Hendrix's work. We've got it collected on the City Journal website. We'll link to his author bio in the description. You can also find City Journal on Twitter at @CityJournal, and on Instagram at @cityjournal_mi.

If you like what you've heard on today's podcast, please give us a rating on iTunes. And Michael Hendrix, thank you again for coming by. Very, very interesting data, and look forward to having you on again once this is renewed.

Michael Hendrix: It's good to be with you.

Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

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