Information, Political Bias, and Public Perceptions of Local Conditions in U.S. Cities

Published date01 March 2020
Date01 March 2020
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-18ohwohgjnCBzo/input 892627PRQXXX10.1177/1065912919892627Political Research QuarterlyHolbrook and Weinschenk
Political Research Quarterly
2020, Vol. 73(1) 221 –236
Information, Political Bias, and
© 2019 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
Public Perceptions of Local
DOI: 10.1177/1065912919892627
Conditions in U.S. Cities
Thomas M. Holbrook1 and Aaron C. Weinschenk2
Using two unique surveys, one that includes over 6,000 respondents interviewed across 39 cities and another that
includes over 47,000 respondents interviewed across 26 U.S. cities, we investigate the extent to which perceptions
of local conditions—the state of the local economy, the quality of local schools, and local crime—reflect actual local
conditions. We examine individual-level differences in the accuracy of perceptions of local conditions using two
different frameworks, one that emphasizes factors that limit information acquisition and may exacerbate political
inequalities, and another that emphasizes motivations for information processing. Objective conditions influence
perceptions of conditions, but the relationship between objective and perceived local conditions is strongest among
individuals with high levels of education and preexisting knowledge. In addition, we find that partisanship plays a role
in shaping perceptions of local conditions. While the partisan match between a respondent and the mayor of their city
has little effect on local perceptions, the match between a respondent’s partisanship and the president’s party has a
strong effect on perceptions of the local economy.
local politics, retrospective voting, urban politics, knowledge gap, partisan bias
1999), leaving us with little understanding of how people
react to and assess economic and other conditions at the
The local political arena represents something of a para-
local level.
dox: although residents interact with and are directly
Given the growing body of research showing that local
affected by actions of local government to a much greater
electorates integrate assessments about local conditions,
extent than either state or national government, interest and
such as the state of the local economy, taxes, schools, and
engagement in local political affairs is fairly limited (Caren
crime, into their local electoral decisions (Arnold and
2007; Hajnal and Lewis 2003; Holbrook and Weinschenk
Carnes 2012; Berry and Howell 2007; Kaufmann 2004;
2014a). One important related issue that is beginning to
Oliver, Ha, and Callen 2012), it is important to evaluate
attract serious attention is the extent to which local elector-
the accuracy of peoples’ perceptions of local conditions,
ates are positioned to hold local political officials account-
even if only in broad strokes. If the assessments that peo-
able for local conditions (Arnold and Carnes 2012; Berry
ple form and use to evaluate local elected officials are
and Howell 2007; Burnett and Kogan 2017; Holbrook
disconnected from reality, but instead reflect relative
and Weinschenk 2014b; Hopkins and Pettingill 2018;
ignorance or partisan bias, there may be cause for con-
Kaufmann 2004; Lay and Tyburski 2017; Oliver and

cern about the quality of democratic accountability at the
Ha 2007). Of particular importance is the issue of what
local level. Indeed, while voting on the basis of political,
factors structure citizens’ assessments of local conditions.
Although the question of how people perceive social, polit-
ical, and economic conditions has been explored by politi-
University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, USA
2University of Wisconsin–Green Bay, USA
cal scientists, the bulk of existing research has focused on
state and national-level conditions (Duch, Palmer, and
Corresponding Author:
Anderson 2000; Evans and Andersen 2006; Funk and
Aaron C. Weinschenk, Department of Political Science, University of
Wisconsin–Green Bay, 2420 Nicolet Drive, Green Bay, WI 54311,
Garcia-Monet 1997; Hetherington 1996; Hopkins 2011;
McDonald and Tolbert 2012; Niemi, Bremer, and Heel

Political Research Quarterly 73(1)
social, or economic conditions does not require that peo-
inequality and find that the level of income inequality in
ple have precise information about those conditions, it
one’s state has a direct impact on individual-level percep-
seems sensible to suggest that if people are going to use
tions about income inequality. In their studies on percep-
such conditions as a mechanism for political accountabil-
tions of national economic conditions, both Erikson and
ity, they should have broadly accurate perceptions about
Wlezien (2012) and Lewis-Beck, Martini, and Kiewiet
what is going on.
(2013) find strong relationships between objective eco-
In this paper, we study perceptions of three different
nomic indicators and aggregated survey measures that
local conditions—the state of the local economy, the
capture perceptions of the state of the national economy.
quality of local public schools,1 and levels of local
While many studies have focused on perceptions of eco-
crime—in cities across the United States. It is important
nomic conditions, we should note that scholars have also
to note that there is a tremendous amount of variation in
examined whether people accurately assess other condi-
the conditions that people experience in cities across the
tions related to political life, including perceived levels of
United States: some people live in places with a thriving
political competition and projections of election out-
local economy, while others live in places that consis-
comes. For instance, some scholars (Guinjoan et al. 2014;
tently struggle; some live in communities where good
McDonald and Tolbert 2012) have found that perceived
schools abound and others live in places where the local
levels of political competition correspond to actual levels
schools get low marks; some live in places where they
of competition in congressional elections, and others
rarely think about their safety, while others live in places
have found that, in aggregate, survey respondents do a
with exceptionally high crime rates. Do peoples’ percep-
pretty good job predicting actual election outcomes
tions about such conditions connect to the reality of the
(Holbrook 2010; Lewis-Beck and Skalaban 1989).
cities where they live? We examine the extent to which
When it comes to local politics, we know virtually
objective indicators guide individual perceptions of local
nothing about whether residents’ perceptions of condi-
conditions, with a particular emphasis on the role of indi-
tions in their city are grounded in reality. Initially, one
vidual characteristics and predispositions in shaping the
might argue that because most people are fairly discon-
connection between objective conditions and percep-
nected from local affairs, they will be ill-informed about
tions. Thus, to understand individual-level differences in
conditions in their city. Consequently, perceptions might
local perceptions, we make use of two different theoreti-
not match reality. On the other hand, the local context is
cal frameworks, one that emphasizes factors that limit
“closest” to people and, even though most people do not
information acquisition and may exacerbate political
pay a great deal of attention to local affairs, they may
inequalities, and another that emphasizes political moti-
have a sense of what is generally happening where they
vations for information processing.
live. Interestingly, Haller and Norpoth (1997, 567) find
that although people who pay attention to national news
Previous Research and Expectations
about the economy are better at connecting objective eco-
nomic conditions to their economic perceptions, even
The question of whether people make accurate assess-
those with little exposure to news about the economy
ments about political, social, and economic conditions
somehow manage “to get a glimpse of economic condi-
has long been of interest to scholars (Duch, Palmer, and
tions.” Our analysis allows for us to explore this possibil-
Anderson 2000; Holbrook and Garand 1996; Niemi,
ity at the local level and also provides an opportunity to
Bremer, and Heel 1999), with a number of scholars find-
expand beyond the potentially low hanging fruit of
ing that the public’s perceptions of conditions are not
national economic conditions.
always fully rooted in reality (Achen and Bartels 2016;
While numerous studies indicate that individual per-
Bartels 2002; Duch, Palmer, and Anderson 2000; ceptions, especially those related to the economy, are
Gramlich 2016; Shao and Goidel 2016). Other studies
shaped by objective conditions (Lewis-Beck, Martini,
provide reason to be more optimistic about the capability
and Kiewiet 2013; Niemi, Bremer, and Heel 1999; Xu
of the public to connect their assessments of conditions to
and Garand 2010), some individual characteristics appear
reality. For example, Niemi, Bremer, and Heel (1999,
to influence perceptions either directly or by moderating
188) find that “state economic perceptions are clearly
the role of objective conditions. For example, perceptions
grounded in economic reality, that is, in the actual condi-
about national economic conditions seem to be colored

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