Most Hamilton County voters think the United States as a whole is headed in the wrong direction, with half of all voters surveyed by the Times Free Press saying they are worse off financially than they were a year ago.
But local voters surveyed during early voting and on Election Day Tuesday said they are more upbeat about the Chattanooga area. While nearly two-thirds of all Hamilton County voters think the nation as a whole is headed in the wrong direction, only one in four respondents said Hamilton County is going in the wrong direction.
The divide in voter sentiment between the local and national outlook in this year's midterm election is similar to what Hamilton County voters said two years ago in a similar Times Free Press survey amid the pandemic shutdowns in the 2020 presidential election.
"Tennessee, in many ways, has been doing better than the rest of the nation, but some of this divide reflects the increasingly negative focus we see on social media, on the cable news networks and in much of our political debates in Washington," Kent Syler, a professor of political science and public policy at Middle Tennessee State University, said in a telephone interview. "I think those partisan fights and attacks about our national politics tend to influence how people see the direction of the country as a whole in a way that we don't see nearly as much in our local news and understanding about what is happening in people's own community."
How the poll was conducted
The survey results are based upon responses to questions of voters during early voting and on election day at 27 different voting precincts across Hamilton County. Reporters for the Chattanooga Times Free Press surveyed 311 randomly selected voters as they exited polling sites throughout the county to get the survey results. With a 95% confidence level, the survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 6% of accurately reflecting the views of all voters in Hamilton County, according to generally accepted survey methodology methods. Scroll down to the bottom of the story to view the questions asked.
With inflation hitting a 40-year high this year and the stock market down more than 17% so far this year, voters voiced less optimism about both Chattanooga and the U.S. economy than they did in 2020. The share of voters thinking the United States as a whole is going in the wrong direction rose from just over 49% in 2020 to more than 65% this year while those thinking that Hamilton County is headed in the wrong direction increased from just under 16% two years ago to about 25% this year.
Only about one of every six voters sampled this fall said they are doing better financially than a year ago, compared with 41% who said they are worse off. The rest of the respondents said they are doing about the same financially as a year ago.
Although unemployment in metropolitan Chattanooga fell in September to a half-century-low rate of 2.8%, wages have not kept pace with inflation for most Chattanoogans this year, and the decline on Wall Street has hurt the wealth and investment earnings for many.
A majority of voters also said they think crime is getting worse, and more voters said they thought race relations were getting worse than the number who said race relations are improving in Chattanooga.
For all their angst, Hamilton County voters overwhelmingly re-elected incumbents in both state and local races in Tuesday's elections, giving record margins of victory for U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Ooltewah, for a 10th term in the reconstituted 3rd congressional district and re-electing Bill Lee to a second term as governor by nearly a 2-to-1 margin across Tennessee.
"There is no question that Tennesseans and the American people are dissatisfied with (President) Joe Biden and the direction of our country," Fleischmann said in a telephone interview Friday. "I think there has also been an increased polarization with people digging in on the positions. What we didn't see are people saying, 'Well, maybe I'll look at the other side and see what they are saying.' You saw instead people saying, 'I'm right, they're wrong, and I'm going to vote that way.'"
Bo Watson, a Chattanooga Republican who was re-elected Tuesday without any opposition for a fifth 4-year term in the Tennessee state Senate, said voters know and talk more with state and city officials and generally feel more familiar with government on the state and local level. That gives them a more positive view of the future direction of their community.
"I think people feel somewhat separated from the federal government, and there is not as much connection with the federal government as what we have with their state and local government officials," Watson said in a phone interview Friday. "The voters have more connection with state and local government, and that gives them greater confidence, especially when things are not going as well."
Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said Chattanoogans are more optimistic "not because we're naive about the challenges ahead, but because we have shown that we have the capacity to tackle them head-on with purpose and unity."
"I think this survey shows that Washington can learn a lesson or two from what we're doing here in Chattanooga," Kelly said in a statement about the survey results. "Ever since I launched my campaign for mayor, I have talked about the power of localism, nonpartisanship and building a shared identity that focuses on what we have in common as Chattanoogans rather than focusing on cable news clickbait that only drives us further apart from understanding our neighbors and our common purpose as a community."
The city of Chattanooga has maintained nonpartisan elections, and Kelly said he has worked to offer opportunities for community discussion and involvement across partisan differences.
Yusuf Hakeem, a Chattanooga Democrat who was re-elected without opposition to a third term in the state House after previously serving on the Chattanooga City Council, also said local issues are not filtered through the highly partisan and divided lense that clouds much of federal politics.
"Locally, I think there are citizens with more common sense here who are willing to look for solutions," Hakeem said in a phone interview Saturday. "We are involved in the political drama, but not to the extent of other communities, and I think that bodes well for Chattanooga."
Without that drama and with few hotly contested races on the ballot across Hamilton County, this year's midterm elections attracted fewer voters, with 42.4% of all registered voters in Hamilton County casting ballots. Two years ago amid the pandemic shutdowns, the turnout exceeded 73% of all voters in the 2020 presidential election. In the last midterm elections in 2018, 65% of registered voters went to the polls and cast ballots.
Turnout was the lowest since the 2010 midterms, when 41.8% of Hamilton County's registered voters cast ballots, according to the Hamilton County Election Commission.
Hamilton County voter views
1. In general, do you believe the United States as a whole is headed in the right direction or the wrong direction?
Right - 21%
Wrong - 66%
Unsure or declined to answer - 13%
2. In general, do you believe that Chattanooga and Hamilton County are headed in the right direction or the wrong direction?
Right - 50%
Wrong - 25%
Unsure and declined to answer - 25%
3. Would you say your personal financial situation today is better, worse or about the same as a year ago?
Better - 18%
Same - 41%
Worse - 41%
What do you think about the growth of the Chattanooga area overall? Do you believe Hamilton County is growing too fast, growing too slow or growing at the right pace?
Too fast - 36%
Too slow - 7%
Right pace - 51%
Unsure - 6%
What do you believe is the biggest problem facing Hamilton County today? (listed in order)
4. Roads, traffic and infrastructure
8. Income inequality
9. Misinformation and divisiveness
Source: The Times Free Press survey of 311 randomly selected Hamilton County voters during early voting and on election day