Campaigns, Mobilization, and Turnout in Mayoral Elections

Date01 March 2014
Published date01 March 2014
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2014, Vol. 67(1) 42 –55
© 2013 University of Utah
Reprints and permissions:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912913494018
Scholars, journalists, and policymakers have long
expressed concern with the low levels of voter turnout
that characterize U.S. elections, and nowhere is turnout
lower than in local elections. In fact, some have even sug-
gested that these low turnout rates signal a “crisis in
American democracy” (Hajnal and Lewis 2003, 645).
Wood (2002), for instance, finds an average turnout rate
of 34 percent in city elections across fifty-seven cities.
Similarly, Caren (2007) reports an average turnout rate of
just 27 percent for mayoral elections across thirty-eight
large U.S. cities.1 Hajnal and Lewis (2003, 646) pinpoint
an important concern with low levels of citizen engage-
ment in local elections, noting that “at the local level
where policies are most likely to be implemented and
where a majority of the nation’s civic leaders are being
elected, important public policy decisions are being made
without the input of most of the affected residents.”
Indeed, a number of studies have shown that local turnout
patterns have important political consequences. Hajnal
and Trounstine (2005) and Hajnal (2010), for example,
find that low turnout in city elections reduces the repre-
sentation of Latinos and Asian Americans on city coun-
cils and in the mayor’s office. Low turnout in city
elections also appears to skew local spending policies
(Hajnal 2010) and create opportunities for organized
interests to influence public policy (Anzia 2011). These
concerns highlight the importance of understanding what
drives turnout at the local level. There are real conse-
quences from low turnout, consequences that may matter
a lot for representation and policies.
Recently, the issue of low turnout has captured the atten-
tion of local policymakers across the United States. New
York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, pro-
claimed that “Voter turnout in elections for all levels of
government is unacceptably low” (quoted in Reforms to
Make Voting Easier 2010). In a 2011 interview on elec-
tions in his city, Memphis, Tennessee Mayor A. C. Whar-
ton made this appeal to voters, “I beg them to get out
and vote, council races, mayor races because this is where
the action is going to be” (quoted in Wimbley 2011). In
the same vein, Mayor Lee Leffingwell of Austin, Texas,
pointed out in 2011 that
Citizen participation is the lifeblood of a healthy democracy,
and obviously this is something we value deeply in Austin.
But unfortunately, when it comes time for our citizens to go
to the polls in May and choose their representatives at City
Hall, most of them simply don’t. (Leffingwell 2011, p. 1)
Some mayors have speculated about the causes of low
turnout and a number of them have even proposed policy
reforms aimed at boosting turnout in mayoral and city
council elections. For instance, in his 2011 state of the city
address, Mayor Leffingwell outlined several potential
494018PRQXXX10.1177/1065912913494018Holbrook and WeinschenkPolitical Research Quarterly
1University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI, USA
2University of Wisconsin, Green Bay, WI, USA
Corresponding Author:
Aaron C. Weinschenk, Department of Political Science, University of
Wisconsin, Green Bay, 2420 Nicolet Drive, Green Bay, WI 54311,
Campaigns, Mobilization, and Turnout in
Mayoral Elections
Thomas M. Holbrook1 and Aaron C. Weinschenk2
Research on local turnout has focused on institutions, with little attention devoted to examining the impact of campaigns.
Using an original data set containing information from 144 large U.S. cities and 340 separate mayoral elections over
time, our contributions to the scholarship in this field are manifold: we focus the literature more squarely on the
impact of campaigns by examining the role of campaign effort (measured with campaign expenditures), candidates,
and competition in voter mobilization; demonstrate the relative importance of challenger versus incumbent campaign
effort in incumbent contests; and show that changes in campaign activities influence changes in turnout over time.
mayoral elections, voter turnout, local politics, civic engagement, mayors

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