The gap between Republicans and Democrats has widened significantly among the ranks of county elected officials since 2004, according to NACo’s 2012 National Survey of County Elected Officials.
Fifty-two percent of those polled self-identified as Republican versus 31 percent Democrats. In 2004 and 2008 — both presidential election years — the figures were closer at about 40 percent each.
At the same time, respondents overwhelmingly (80 percent) said partisan differences in Washington are more of a problem today than in the past. However, despite county officials’ increasing division along party lines, a majority responded that partisanship among county elected officials is not a problem. Not all elected county officials are required to declare a party affiliation to run in their respective states, however, many personally identify with a party.
Sixty-six percent of respondents identified themselves as very conservative (28 percent) or conservative (38 percent), while 12 percent said they were somewhat or very liberal.
A random sample of about 500 elected county leaders was interviewed for the telephone survey June 1–18 on issues such as the economy, budgets and politics. This is NACo’s ninth such survey.
“The data this year showed that national-level partisan politics have reached the local level,” said Jacqueline Byers, NACo’s director of research. “In addition, more counties than ever before are struggling with their governmental structure as they try to adapt to their new fiscal realities.”
That adaptation includes a belief that local government should be more entrepreneurial. Two-thirds of the respondents (66 percent) said that government ought to be run like a business; 29 percent believe government’s mission makes it too different to be run in that manner. The entrepreneurial approach, perhaps not surprisingly, was much more accepted among Republicans (76 percent) than among Democrats (51 percent), but in each case, a majority favored the approach.
This year, 67 percent of respondents said the nation’s politics and policies are on the wrong track, while 26 percent said things are heading in the right direction. The percentage of “wrong track” responders is at its highest since 2008, when 71 percent of those polled shared that view. Responses correlated with party affiliation; of those saying the country is on the right track, 8 percent were Republicans, 17 percent independents and 61 percent Democrats.
County elected officials see the economy and joblessness as the most important problems facing the nation today, with concerns about the federal government’s ability to function effectively close behind.
Fifty-four percent of those polled this year referenced the economy, jobs or the recession in response to an open-ended question about the most important problem facing the United States today. Concern about these issues was strongest in the South (61 percent). Thirty-four percent of those responding said federal government ineffectiveness was the biggest problem.
As county spending has contracted during the recession and recovery, officials were asked whether cuts they have made are permanent; 47 percent believe they are. Those surveyed also were asked whether these cuts “ought” to be permanent: 42 percent said “yes,” while 44 percent replied that the cuts ought to be restored.
Views of the national economy are largely unchanged since 2009; in the most recent survey, 89 percent rated the economy as fair or poor. However, views of the local economy have steadily improved over the past two years with 43 percent rating it excellent (5 percent) or good (38 percent). Counties’ assessments of their fiscal health are at their highest since 2006. On a scale of 1 to 10, county elected officials rated their fiscal health at 6.7 on average. In 2011, it was 6.4.
Fifty-two percent of respondents believe that counties are likely to move toward a fee-for-services model of financing; while 48 percent find this to be an inappropriate model for funding county services. Another option for counties to provide services is by contracting with the private sector. Two-thirds of county elected officials (66 percent) favor contracting with private firms to deliver county services; 26 percent oppose such contracts.
Fifty-one percent of respondents said that they are not too concerned (35 percent) or not concerned at all (16 percent) about their county’s ability to replace the skills of retiring county employees. Representatives from smaller counties expressed a slightly higher level of concern about replacing skilled workers than did those from larger counties.
Forty-one percent of county elected officials believe that their constituents understand very little about county government, and they give public schools poor marks for educating students about civics and the role of local government.
On the whole, county commissioners are getting younger; this year the average age of respondents was 60 compared to 62 in 2011. Among other statistics, the 2012 survey found that respondents were 89 percent white, 7 percent black, 2.4 percent Hispanic, 1 percent Asian and 3 percent other. Eighty-eight percent of respondents were male and 12 percent female.
The county elected officials in the 2012 survey have worked in county government, in some capacity, an average of 12 years. They have been in their current role for just over 8 years on average, although a plurality (41 percent) has served less than 5 years.