How long have you lived in Northwest Arkansas? That might be the quintessential question that differentiates your opinion on a variety of topics ranging from immigration and infrastructure to Wal-Mart Stores and workplace equality.
A new Northwest Arkansas Business Journal poll, conducted in mid-December by Talk Business & Politics, Hendrix College and Impact Management Group among 522 Benton and Washington county residents, reflects regional attitudes on a litany of concerns.
“This survey confirms several of the traditionally held assumptions made about new arrivals to the region and longtime residents,” said Robert Coon, partner with Arkansas-based Impact Management Group, a political and public affairs shop that primarily manages GOP candidates and conducts regular polling.
Coon noted that new residents to the region — those who have lived in Northwest Arkansas fewer than three years — tend to be younger, Democratic and more Hispanic. Longtime residents — those who have lived in the area for 10 or more years — are older, more Republican and likely to be white.
“Yet while these two groups differ on some issues as we might expect, they still agree on many of them. … New residents to Northwest Arkansas appear to have more progressive views on some issues compared to longtime residents; however, they don’t demonstrate a monolithic ideological perspective or fit in one predictable box, thus their ability to drastically change the makeup of the overall electorate in the region is still fairly limited,” Coon said.
Dr. Jay Barth, professor of political science at Hendrix College, has been active in state and local polling across Arkansas since 2009. While cautious to draw a complete conclusion on this first poll, Barth said there is empirical evidence to support what many suggest is happening anecdotally in Northwest Arkansas.
“There does seem to be evidence that those who are now arriving in Northwest Arkansas are more politically progressive on various issues, more Democratic, more diverse ethnically, better educated than those who have been in this part of the state for a period of time,” Barth said. “This suggests the sort of political and cultural change that some have suggested is on its way for the region.”
Before diving deeper into analysis, one should view the overall topline answers first (see sidebar). A survey of 522 registered voters in Benton and Washington counties asked a battery of questions on Dec. 14, 2017.
DEMOGRAPHICS, FOR CONTEXT
The results of this new Northwest Arkansas survey were dissected for analysis by age, ethnicity, party identification, education, gender, and by longevity in the region. Fifty-two percent of respondents were from Washington County, while 48% were from Benton County.
Eighty-six percent have lived in Northwest Arkansas for more than 10 years, while nine percent are residents of less than three years and five percent have lived in the area for 3-10 years. Fifty-four percent of participants were female; 46% were male.
Northwest Arkansas is still overwhelmingly white (84%) with only three percent identifying as Latino, 1.5 percent Asian-American, and one percent African-American. Roughly 10.5 percent identified as “other,” which could include a mix of races or heritage.
In this poll, results were weighted to reflect demographic and voting trends. Thirty-seven percent of respondents were under the age of 45, while 63 percent were above the age of 45. Educational attainment was reflected as follows:
• 5% Did not complete high school
• 20% High school/GED
• 25% Some College
• 8% Two-year degree
• 20% Bachelor’s degree
• 16% Master’s/Professional degree
• 6% Advanced graduate work/PhD
Among party affiliation, Republicans were unsurprisingly the leading identifier at 37%, followed by Democrats (29%) and Independents (28%). Six percent claimed “other” as their party affiliation.
All of these factors suggest that white residents living in the area for more than 10 years are the most dominant group in a region that does have diversity in its political affiliation and educational influence.
THE BIG PICTURE
In a departure from most polls, Northwest Arkansas residents far and away identify “roads and infrastructure” as the most important issue for the region. Regular drives on I-49 and the congestion of local roads due to the area’s population growth are propelling these attitudes.
Seventy-one percent drive at least once a week on the main interstate artery, with 25% making a daily commute. “Roads and infrastructure” were identified by 34 percent of residents as the top issue for Northwest Arkansas. “Healthcare” was a distant second place at 18%, followed by “taxes” (17%) and “jobs and the economy” (9%). Other choices included: affordable housing (8%), education (6%), or something else (8%).
“Traditionally, ‘jobs and the economy’ is the top issue in most statewide surveys,” said Impact Management’s Coon. “These results signal a priority shift among Northwest Arkansas voters due to Arkansas’ low statewide unemployment rate, and the particularly strong local economy in Northwest Arkansas.”
He noted that “roads and infrastructure” as the dominant top issue – across nearly every single demographic – suggests that regional leaders may have an opportunity to put even more emphasis on funding state and local roads if voters can be educated on a plan that wisely uses tax dollars.
“For those working to tackle a potential new road funding initiative, the timing may be right to make the sale to voters, though the devil is always in the details. It’s worth noting that taxes came in as the No. 3 priority issue overall and the No. 1 issue for independent voters,” Coon said.
Attitudes regarding Wal-Mart, the region’s largest economic driver, were impressive overall; however, there were marked differences between age groups and how long residents lived in Northwest Arkansas.
Thirty-six percent think Wal-Mart’s management team, led by CEO Doug McMillon, has the company headed in the right direction versus 29 percent who think the retail giant is headed in the wrong direction. An optimistic 45 percent say Wal-Mart is capable of competing with Amazon in the world of e-commerce. Just 27% disagree and 28% have no opinion.
“Confidence in Wal-Mart’s ability to compete with Amazon drops sharply among those who have lived in Northwest Arkansas less than 10 years with only 33% believing they can compete, as compared to longer term residents (45%) – a logical result given the growth and success at the company that many longer-term residents have witnessed firsthand,” Coon said.
Confidence in Wal-Mart’s ability to compete drops even lower among residents who have lived in Northwest Arkansas for less than three years to just 25 percent. Potentially more concerning are attitudes toward Wal-Mart among Latinos and women in the region.
Only 28% of Latino voters surveyed expressed confidence in Wal-Mart’s ability to compete with Amazon, and 84% responded that Wal-Mart is headed in the wrong direction. Women expressed some confidence in Wal-Mart’s ability to compete (41%), though less than men (50%), and were evenly split on whether the company was headed in the right direction (27%) or wrong direction (27%).
“Given the importance of female consumers in particular to the retail segment, these results signal some weakness,” said Coon. “Testing confidence and competition with Amazon in future surveys, and comparing the results among these two demographic groups, would be a worthwhile endeavor.”
The data suggests significant differentials when it comes to gay rights in the region. Fifty-six percent support equal rights in the workplace for heterosexual and homosexual employees, while 22 percent disagree. But when it comes to adoption rights, opinions shift.
Fifty-one percent think gay couples should not be allowed the same rights as heterosexual couples in terms of child adoption. Thirty-eight percent support the notion with the remaining 11 percent undecided.
“Across the nation and in surveys such as the University of Arkansas’s Arkansas Poll, there has been shown much for support for protecting LGBT individuals from job discrimination than on issues of partnership recognition and adoption. That’s shown in this survey as well,” said Hendrix’s Barth.
“While an examination of the crosstabs shows similar patterns on the questions with most political and demographic groups, two interesting things arise: first, while no gender gap exists on the adoption question, women are decidedly more supportive of protecting the rights of LGBT workers; and, second, Latinos are overwhelmingly opposed to adoption by gays and lesbians, but also overwhelmingly supportive of workplace anti-discrimination legislation covering LGBT folks,” Barth added.
With rapid growth in the region and an influx of Hispanic workers in Northwest Arkansas over the last two decades, attitudes regarding immigration for children of illegal immigrants are strongly progressive.
Congress is weighing changes to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which President Donald Trump rescinded in 2017, but delayed implementation for six months. Trump wants to tie a DACA solution to funding for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico – a plan unlikely to find bipartisan support. The DACA registrants had been protected from deportation under an edict during President Barack Obama’s administration.
Fifty-three percent say Congress should pass protections for minors to protect them from deportation. Thirty-four percent say DACA enrollees should be deported and 13 percent have no opinion.
“Northwest Arkansas shows findings in sync with national support for continuation of the DACA program. While we don’t have comparative numbers for the rest of Arkansas, two factors likely drive regional support for the program: the presence of large numbers of younger Latinos in the two counties providing a familiarity with so-called ‘Dreamers’ and the close ties to the University of Arkansas and businesses, two sectors that generally support more open immigration policies,” Barth said.
While Republicans (37%) and Democrats (29%) make up the largest voting blocs in the region, the way of independents can often swing attitudes, elections and public opinion.
Independents comprise 28% of the region’s political attitudes. In statewide surveys and in recent years, independents have aligned very closely with Republican voters in Arkansas. In Northwest Arkansas, the variety among the region’s swing voters is a departure from that trend.
“Independents in Northwest Arkansas cut their own path,” Coon said. “Independent voters have a negative view on the direction that Wal-Mart is headed (22% right direction, 36% wrong direction), which aligns them more with Democratic voters, yet they are optimistic in Wal-Mart’s ability to compete with Amazon (47%), mirroring Republicans.
“On DACA, the views of Independent voters are more closely aligned with Democrats, while they oppose removing confederate monuments almost as strongly as Republicans do. On gay workplace and gay adoption issues, Independent voters find themselves squarely in between Democrats and Republicans,” Coon said. “Politically, the most significant takeaway from Independent voters in this survey may rest in the fact that they were the only group with taxes as their No. 1 issue – a key takeaway for both parties or any group looking to make headway on the ballot in Northwest Arkansas in 2018.”
Of these choices, what do you think is currently the most important issue in Northwest Arkansas?
34%: Roads and infrastructure
9%: Jobs and the economy
8%: Affordable housing
8%: Something else
How often do you travel on Interstate 49?
35%: A few times a week
11%: Once a week
25%: Less than once a week
Do you think Wal-Mart’s management team has the company headed in the right direction or the wrong direction?
36%: Right direction
29%: Wrong direction
35%: No opinion/don’t know
Do you think Wal-Mart is capable of competing with Amazon in the e-commerce industry?
28%: No opinion/don’t know
Do you think homosexual employees should have the same rights as heterosexual employees in the workplace?
22%: No opinion/don’t know
Do you think homosexual couples should have the same rights as heterosexual couples when it comes to adopting a child?
11%: No opinion/don’t know
Do you think that Congress should move to protect immigrants in the DACA program who came to the United States as minors, or should these individuals be deported?
53%: Congress should protect DACA enrollees
34%: DACA enrollees should be deported
13%: No opinion/don’t know