When Mayors Matter: Estimating the Impact of Mayoral Partisanship on City Policy


  • Previous versions of this research were presented at the 2009 annual meetings of the Midwest and American Political Science Associations, as well as the 2009 Summer Meeting of the Society for Political Methodology and the Georgetown University Political Economy Seminar. The authors wish to thank Fernando Ferreira, Joseph Gyourko, and Justin Phillips for sharing data as well as Michael Bailey, Christopher Berry, Devin Caughey, Donald P. Green, Jonathan M. Ladd, Gabriel Lenz, Marc Meredith, Anirudh Ruhil, Jessica Trounstine, and Carol Weissert for comments or other assistance. The authors thank MIT for institutional support. Katherine T. McCabe contributed with thoughtful and tireless research assistance. We are grateful as well to AJPS editor Rick Wilson and the anonymous reviewers.

Elisabeth R. Gerber is a Professor in the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and a Research Associate in the Center for Political Studies, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan, 5228 Weill Hall, 735 S. State St., Ann Arbor, MI 48109-3091 (ergerber@umich.edu). Daniel J. Hopkins is an Assistant Professor in Government, Georgetown University, ICC, 37th and O Streets NW, Washington, DC 20057 (dh335@georgetown.edu).


U.S. cities are limited in their ability to set policy. Can these constraints mute the impact of mayors’ partisanship on policy outcomes? We hypothesize that mayoral partisanship will more strongly affect outcomes in policy areas where there is less shared authority between local, state, and federal governments. To test this hypothesis, we create a novel dataset combining U.S. mayoral election returns from 1990 to 2006 with city fiscal data. Using regression discontinuity design, we find that cities that elect a Democratic mayor spend a smaller share of their budget on public safety, a policy area where local discretion is high, than otherwise similar cities that elect a Republican or an Independent. We find no differences on tax policy, social policy, and other areas that are characterized by significant overlapping authority. These results suggest that models of national policymaking are only partially applicable to U.S. cities. They also have implications for political accountability: mayors may not be able to influence the full range of policies that are nominally local responsibilities.