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Elections as Focusing Events: Explaining Attitudes Toward the Police and the Government in Comparative Perspective


  • This article was written with support from the University of Kentucky, the University of South Carolina, and a resident fellowship at The Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. We also wish to thank Jeff Gill, Gary King, James L. Gibson, Andrew Martin, Christopher Zorn, the political science departments of the University of Kentucky and University of South Carolina, and Law & Society Review's anonymous reviews.

Please address correspondence to Lee Demetrius Walker, University of South Carolina, Department of Political Science, 350 Gambrell Hall, Columbia, SC 29208; e-mail:; or Richard W. Waterman, University of Kentucky, Department of Political Science, 1637 Patterson Office Tower, Lexington, KY 40506-0027; e-mail:


Traditional views hold that citizens' attitudes toward the police are driven by local concerns. We contend that public attitudes toward the police are responsive to systematic and periodic national-level political factors. In particular, we show that national elections as a focusing event alter periodically the determinants of attitudes toward the police. Using a logistic regression model and diachronic data from Costa Rica, Mexico, and the United States, we find that attitudes toward the police and the national government are linked, and this linkage is responsive to the influence of national election campaigns in varying degrees. In addition, we find that attitudes toward the Mexican police are sensitive to partisan changes in the composition of the national political government. We find no such sensitivity in the police attitudes of Costa Rican and U.S. citizens. This suggests that police attitudes are not only affected by the performance of the national political government but also by the character (consolidated versus unconsolidated) of the national political government. In short, police attitudes in new democracies are an indication of the unconsolidated nature of the state apparatus.