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VIEWPOINT: Survey offers insight on Delaware’s direction, government’s priorities

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What are the paramount challenges facing Delaware today? How well are our state and local governments doing at solving these problems? And what can we do better?

A recent public opinion survey, commissioned by the Delaware Journalism Collaborative, offers an amazing new window into the attitudes and concerns shared by the state’s residents.

Darel LaPrade Delaware Journalism Collaboration State News

Darel La Prade | PHOTO COURTESY OF DJC

The questions in the poll were designed to uncover what folks from Wilmington to Selbyville see as the chief challenges facing Delaware today and to gauge opinions about the effectiveness of state and local governments in dealing with these problems. The poll also sheds light on how our attitudes are shaped by the county where we live, our level of education, age, political party affiliation, and race.

It is all part of a two-year project of the Delaware Journalism Collaborative that focuses on the toll polarization takes on local communities. The DJC is a statewide partnership of news and public interest organizations formed by the Local Journalism Initiative of Delaware in 2022 with a grant from the Solutions Journalism Network. The goal of the initiative is to identify the factors that divide us and advance solutions for how we can work together more effectively.

Between March 6 and March 26, staffers from the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall College put 50 questions to more than 500 of the state’s adults, selected scientifically to reflect Delaware’s population. The survey’s findings paint a fascinating picture of our state – a picture that differs significantly from the one often portrayed in the national media.

The results of the survey will provide the collaborative’s partners a data-driven basis for reporting on the causes and consequences of polarization.

The first question posed by the poll asked whether Delaware is headed in the right direction, and half (49%) of the state’s adults agreed while two in five (41%) disagreed. OK, you might say, those numbers – a mere 8% difference between the right and wrong directions – point to a fairly stable consensus. As has been said by others, we are, after all, “a state of neighbors,” who work through our differences together. That’s the Delaware Way.

But there are startling differences suggesting otherwise. Only 36% of Sussex residents agree the state is headed in the right direction, compared to 56% of New Castle’s residents.

Age yields an even larger gap: 74% of those younger than 35 agreed with the positive assessment, while only 39% of those older than 55 agreed.

Likewise, party affiliation also produced significant differences: Only one in five (19%) Republicans approve of the state’s direction, while three in four (75%) Democrats – the party largely responsible for setting this direction – like where we are headed.

The survey also included an open-ended question that asked about the most important problem facing Delaware. Overall, more people – 18% – cited “crime, drugs, violence, guns” as the preeminent problem faced by our residents. More than 20 other problems were also identified by those surveyed, including everything from “education, schools,” to “health care, insurance,” to “economy” to “immigration, illegal immigrants, refugees.”

But once more, when you dig deeper into the data, surprising differences rise to the surface. One exceptionally striking insight is again based on the respondent’s home county. Only 8% of Sussex Countians identify “crime, drugs, violence, guns” as their biggest concern.

The top concern of Sussex residents is “population, urban sprawl,” cited by one in four (23%) of respondents who call Delaware’s southernmost county home. Since the state’s two largest cities – Wilmington and Dover – are in New Castle and Kent counties respectively, one might naturally expect population and urban sprawl to be seen as vexing problems by residents in these locales.

That only one in 20 (4%) of the residents in New Castle and Kent (3%) mentioned this as a salient concern makes the finding among Sussex residents seem especially remarkable, and it underscores the explosive potential that decisions about zoning and land-use have to polarize communities. But it also reminds us how important local circumstances and local issues can be for residents even if these issues aren’t receiving national or statewide attention.

And when asked if the elected members of the Delaware state House and Senate make decisions based on the best interests of their community, only two in five (42%) adults thought they did. Half (50%) said they did not.

Partisanship, of course, strongly influences whether one “definitely” believes state legislators are making the best decisions for local communities. When compared to Republicans, Democrats say, “yes, definitely,” by a margin of two to one. What is surprising, however, is that when you consider other factors – such as county of residence, gender, education, age, and race – there is little difference in the level of dissatisfaction with the legislature.

One might reasonably argue this response is typical of the current historical moment, but the data demonstrate that dissatisfaction with the legislature is widespread throughout the state, and the findings strongly suggest our state’s local legislators have some ways to go if they are going to regain the confidence of their constituents.

And that will be a gigantic task, given that partisanship and ideological perspectives so strongly influence how citizens feel about the parties and our elected officials.

The survey also asked about the state government’s spending priorities. The researchers gave residents eight categories of spending and asked them to rate, in their opinion, whether the amount of money allocated for each category was “Too much,” “Too little,” or “About the right amount.” One thing is clear: only a small minority of adults believes the state spends “too much” on any of the categories mentioned.

The categories included “hard infrastructure” items like providing greater access to high-speed internet, guaranteeing potable water, preventing beach erosion, and maintaining highways and bridges, along with “human infrastructure” initiatives such as improving the state’s educational system, assuring affordable housing, improving law enforcement and criminal justice, and supporting economic growth.

The survey found general agreement between Republicans and unaffiliated voters that the state is spending about the right amount on all but one of the eight categories. Democrats, on the other hand, believe the state is spending too little on all eight categories.

But independents overwhelmingly agreed with Democrats that improving the state’s educational system is the one category that is insufficiently funded. When it comes to education, three in four (73%) Democrats and two in three (67%) independents believe the state is not spending enough to improve the system, as do half of their Republican counterparts. On some things, common ground exists.

Polarization is driven by many factors – media fragmentation, politicians no longer willing to compromise, and even fundamental differences about what is true – but it is notable that eight out of 10 Delawareans claim to follow what is going on in government and politics most or some of the time, and that 65% of us talk with other people frequently or sometimes about government and politics. The fact that we follow what is happening in our state and tend to talk to each other about it seems to be the most likely path to overcoming the dangers of polarization.

The partners in the DJC hope that by exploring the different ways polarization manifests itself in Delaware, and by offering possible ways to bridge divisions, we can promote and elevate our conversations.

The complete topline results from the survey are available online here.

Darel La Prade has been a newspaper journalist for 40 years and now serves as project manager for the Delaware Journalism Collaborative. He can be reached at darellaprade1@gmail.com.

On the Methodology

Interviews were conducted at the Center for Opinion Research at Franklin & Marshall. The address-based sample for the survey was provided by Marketing Systems Group. Population estimates were derived from 2021 5-year estimates from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. All sampled households were notified by mail about the survey. Interviews were completed over the phone and online depending on each respondent’s preference.

The sample error for this survey is +/- 5.8 percentage points when the design effects from weighting are considered. In addition, surveys that rely on self-reported behaviors and attitudes are susceptible to biases related to the way respondents process and respond to survey questions.

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