Buckhead cityhood opposition takes the lead with strong partisan divide, opponents’ poll says
By John Ruch
Opposition to Buckhead cityhood is winning over local voters, with at least a plurality and maybe a slim majority against it, according to a new poll from the anti-cityhood Committee for a United Atlanta (CUA). The issue remains strongly partisan, though, with Republicans as the base of support in what may be an increasingly Democratic neighborhood.
The poll of 400 Buckhead voters found 51.5 percent of voters opposed to cityhood and 40.25 percent in favor. It also came with a 4.9 percent margin of error, but the pollster is confident that opposition is trending no matter which way those numbers shift.
“There’s certainly a partisan pattern to the numbers,” said Jon McHenry, vice president of the CUA-hired polling firm North Star Opinion Research, told SaportaReport.
In partisan terms, cityhood was supported by 69 percent of respondents who self-identified as Republicans and opposed by 77 percent of Democrats and 47 percent of independents. Previous polling by the pro-cityhood Buckhead City Committee (BCC) also showed a stark partisan divide in support for cityhood, which is backed in the General Assembly solely by Republicans from outside the neighborhood and opposed by the all-Democratic local delegations.
Independents were the new CUA poll’s largest pool of respondents, but among the partisans, Democrats had a 9-point advantage over Republicans. Could that result in underestimating cityhood support in a traditionally Republican-leaning neighborhood? McHenry said he thinks the Democratic percentage accurately reflects a growing Democratic voter base, as the polling was random and consistent with a previous poll in June. He acknowledges, though, that if Georgia had voter registration by party, the pollsters might have weighted the results for whatever those numbers showed.
North Star and CUA compared the new results from the Jan. 16 to19 polling to that similar poll, conducted in June 2021. They interpreted differences – including higher opposition and lower support – as trends resulting from opposition advocacy and the election of Mayor Andre Dickens.
“The more people learn about the consequences of a Buckhead City, the less likely they are to support it,” said CUA co-chair Linda Klein in a press release. “In addition, Mayor Andre Dickens has demonstrated immediate leadership and has shown Buckhead residents and the entire City of Atlanta that he is focused on reducing violent crime and uniting our city.”
In comparing results between two polls, it can be tricky to distinguish actual changes in public opinion from statistical noise and variables. When it comes to the growing opposition to cityhood, McHenry said North Star has reasons “to feel confident its a real move rather than just random difference between the two surveys.” Part is statistical, as both have the same margins of error and questions, the other is somewhat subjective in noting the opinion changes track with the election of new Mayor Andre Dickens, whose popularity and name recognition skyrocketed between the polls.
The BCC did not dispute the accuracy of the CUA poll. Instead, it highlighted results that showed continued concern about the issues driving cityhood politics, then pivoted to the latest version of its own internal polling that showed a strong majority of Buckhead voters in favor of both cityhood (64 percent) and a vote on the issue (72 percent).
“Let’s be clear. Even the City of Atlanta’s own survey poll [sic] confirms almost 60 percent of registered voters in Buckhead feel the City of Atlanta is headed in the absolute wrong direction, while nearly the same number say crime is still the No. 1 problem Atlanta faces,” said a written statement from the BCC delivered via Bill White, its chairman and CEO. “Meantime, more than half of those surveyed believe City of Atlanta taxes are way too high for the services they get in return… Voters should not allow our opponents’ half-truths and fear-mongering to impact their sacred right to vote for (or against) their own destiny.”
Some grains of salt with that: The CUA poll — which was funded by the group itself, not the city — shows those concerns are lower than the June polling. Additionally, the BCC’s latest poll was in September after the movement got a bump from a positive feasibility study. That was before a series of political blows, including the formation of a new opposition group, Dickens’ election and self-inflicted wounds from White’s social media trolling — particularly his retweeting of racist crime commentary from the white nationalist affiliated website VDARE.
On the other hand, that latest BCC poll had more respondents — 579 — and a lower margin of error. The BCC did not respond to a question as to whether it will conduct further polling of its own.
Crime has been the political driver of the cityhood movement, and the CUA poll indeed showed extraordinary concern about the issue. Crime was named the city’s most important problem by 57 percent of respondents, though that was down from 63 percent in June. For context, crime was the only response to gain any double-digit percent of responses. The next highest, at 6 percent, was a category called “other (write-in).” Other issues tying into cityhood drew trivial concern, including “unity/division” and “Atlanta City Government” at 2 percent each and “mayor” at 1 percent.
McHenry said that in roughly 25 years of conducting polls, he did not recall seeing any one issue get more than 40 percent in such a poll aside from those coming immediately after a catastrophe like Sept. 11. “To have something around 60 percent on any issue is strange,” McHenry said, adding it shows that crime is key to cityhood politics. “That’s what this [cityhood] issue is going to be decided on… Once you get past that, there’s not a whole of ‘there’ there on this issue.”
But again, partisanship plays a role in that crime issue. Crime was the top concern of most Republicans (66 percent) and independents (62 percent), but a minority of Democrats (48 percent), 10 percent of whom named “poverty/homelessness” as their biggest issue.
Other key findings of the new CUA poll and comparison with June results:
- The crucial cityhood question was worded: “Do you support or oppose Buckhead neighborhoods leaving the City of Atlanta and creating a new city with its own government and services?” The results were 51.5 percent opposed — rounded to 51 in the report’s abstract — which was up from 44 percent. Support was at 40.25 — rounded to 40 in the abstract — which was down from 48 percent.
- Only 34 percent of respondents said the City of Atlanta is heading in the “right direction,” though that was up from 30 percent. Another 59 percent thought the city is on the “wrong track,” though that is down from 67 percent.
- On a perennial issue of local resentment, the ratio of taxes paid to services received, 52 percent said the amount paid is too high, down from 56 percent, and 40 percent said it’s about right, up from 36 percent. But again, there were partisan differences: 68 percent of Republicans and 61 percent of independents chose “too high,” while only 29 percent of Democrats did.
- On political affiliation, approximately 34 percent identified as “strong” or “not-so-strong” Democrats and 25 percent as a similar mix of Republicans. The Democrat-identified voters were up 2 percent while the Republican mix was the same. Factoring in independents who leaned toward one party, the Democrat representation among respondents was about 48 percent and Republicans about 37 percent. On broader political philosophy, about 31 percent identified as very or somewhat liberal, up from 29 percent, and about 29 percent as very or somewhat conservative, down from 35 percent.
The CUA poll results were announced on Jan. 24, the same day the BCC held a fundraiser featuring Republican legislators backing the movement. The results were released in the form of an abstract with percentages of responses, but North Star and CUA later provided SaportaReport with the full crosstabs data.