Are Perceptions of Local Conditions Rooted in Reality? Evidence From Two Large-Scale Local Surveys

Published date01 July 2020
Date01 July 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(4) 467 –474
© The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X19885863
Although the literature on retrospective voting has largely
focused on national- and state-level politics (Atkeson &
Partin, 1995; Cohen & King, 2006; Fiorina, 1981; Healy &
Malhotra, 2013; Lewis-Beck & Stegmaier, 2000; Stein,
1990), the question of whether local electorates hold local
political officials accountable for local conditions has started
to attract serious attention, producing a body of research
indicating that local conditions, such as the state of the local
economy, taxes, schools, and crime, are connected to local
election outcomes (Arnold & Carnes, 2012; Berry & Howell,
2007; Burnett & Kogan, 2016; Holbrook & Weinschenk,
2014b; Hopkins & Pettingill, 2018; Howell & Perry, 2004;
Kaufmann, 2004; Lay & Tyburski, 2017; Oliver & Ha, 2007;
Oliver, Ha, & Callen, 2012). Implicit in these studies of local
elections is the important assumption that voters have some
understanding of the state of local conditions; that local elec-
torates can distinguish between good times and bad times.
Although Howell and Perry (2004) note that “there are many
areas in which city residents can reasonably evaluate local
performance,” we actually know very little about whether
perceptions of local conditions are connected to reality
(p. 38).
The question of whether people make accurate assessments
about political, social, and economic conditions has long been
of interest to scholars (Duch, Palmer, & Anderson, 2000;
Holbrook & Garand, 1996; Niemi, Bremer, & Heel, 1999),
although there is disagreement about the extent to which
perceptions match reality. Recently, Achen and Bartels (2016)
have argued that voters are quite irrational and generally do
not make well-informed retrospective assessments about
political and economic conditions. Instead, according to
Achen and Bartels (2016), most people make political evalua-
tions on the basis of political and social identities rather than a
sincere assessment of reality. Other scholars, too, have found
evidence that the public’s perceptions of conditions are not
always fully rooted in reality (Bartels, 2002; Duch et al., 2000;
Gramlich, 2016; Shao & Goidel, 2016). To be fair, some stud-
ies are more optimistic about the capability of the public to
connect their assessments of conditions to reality. For exam-
ple, Niemi et al. (1999) show that “state economic perceptions
are clearly grounded in economic reality, that is, in the actual
conditions of the state” (p. 188). Both Franko (2017) and Xu
and Garand (2010) find that perceptions of income inequality
are connected to objective measures. In addition, Erikson and
Wlezien (2012) and Lewis-Beck, Martini, and Kiewiet (2013)
find strong relationships between objective economic
885863APRXXX10.1177/1532673X19885863American Politics ResearchHolbrook and Weinschenk
1University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, USA
2University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, USA
Corresponding Author:
Aaron C. Weinschenk, Department of Political Science, University of
Wisconsin–Green Bay, P.O. Box 413, Green Bay, WI 54311, USA.
Are Perceptions of Local Conditions
Rooted in Reality? Evidence From
Two Large-Scale Local Surveys
Thomas M. Holbrook1 and Aaron C. Weinschenk2
In this research note, we test an assumption that is often made in the literature on local retrospective voting—that peoples’
perceptions of local conditions are well-grounded in reality. To do so, we examine the relationship between objective
measures of local conditions and aggregated survey measures of perceptions of those conditions. We focus on three different
conditions that have been shown to influence vote choice and approval at the local level—the state of the local economy,
the quality of local public schools, and levels of local crime—and find strong evidence that perceptions of these conditions
reflect actual local conditions. This important and previously unreported finding helps bolster the connections some scholars
have found between objective indicators and election outcomes at the local level, as those indicators are tied to mass
perceptions of related local conditions, which are connected to evaluations of incumbents. Overall, our results indicate that
local electorates are well-positioned to hold local officials responsible. Given the general conception of the local electorate
as disengaged, the strength and consistency of our findings are somewhat unexpected.
local politics, elections, retrospective voting

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