The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
September 10, 2012

Washington, DC: The most optimistic city?

September 10, 2012

A recent Gallup poll of all 50 states plus the District of Columbia found the DC area to be number one in terms of confidence in the economy, a ranking the district has held since 2009. DC was the only area to score positively on the Gallup Economic Confidence Index; 70 percent of those surveyed in the first half of 2012 believed that the economy was getting better.

For comparison’s sake, the second most positive was Minnesota, where less than half—48 percent—were willing to say that the economy was getting better. In West Virginia, the bottom of the list, less than a third thought the economy was improving.

A Gallup poll of major metro areas also placed DC at the top in confidence in the economy. Memphis, Salt Lake City, and Austin tied for second place, while Buffalo and Tampa-St. Petersburg sat at the bottom.

Why are Washingtonians so much more confident in the economy than everyone else? Gallup’s Lydia Saad notes that the District of Columbia, like others at the top of the list, also placed in the top 10 of Gallup’s Job Creation Index. Gallup also finds that economic confidence is correlated with political leanings: in 2012, Democrats expressed more confidence in the economy than Republicans or independents, suggesting that opinion of the current president is a factor. Given that DC is predominantly Democratic, this offers another explanation for its top ranking.

But does opinion match up with fact? POLICOM’s Economic Strength Ratings 2012 finds the Washington, DC, area to be number one in economic strength in 2011 and 2012 and number two from 2008 to 2010. So it would appear that DC residents do have good reason to be optimistic! However, the connection between economic confidence and actual economic conditions isn’t always so straightforward. For example: in 2011, Memphis, Tennessee, and Tampa, Florida, were ranked 56th and 57th respectively in economic strength, putting them both in the top one-sixth of metropolitan areas.

However, in Gallup’s 2011 poll, Memphis had the second-highest economic confidence score and Tampa had the second-lowest. What could cause such a large gap between cities with very similar economic conditions?

One possible explanation for this discrepancy is politics. A study from the Bay Area Center for Voting Research found that 73 percent of the population in Memphis voted liberal, and the city ranked 39th most liberal out of 237 cities surveyed. In Tampa, 57 percent of the vote was liberal, and the city was ranked 108. (Keep in mind that urban areas tend to lean towards liberal.) Did the politics of the respective cities push their opinion polls in opposite directions? Other undiscovered factors may also have played a role.

Although many pundits and reporters have proclaimed that this election will be all about the economy, I find it interesting that sometimes political views may influence confidence in the economy, not the other way around.

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