Skip to main content
    • Aa
    • Aa

Retrospective Voting in Big-City US Mayoral Elections*


Retrospective voting is a central explanation for voters’ support of incumbents. Yet, despite the variety of conditions facing American cities, past research has devoted little attention to retrospective voting for mayors. This paper first develops hypotheses about how local retrospective voting might differ from its national analog, due to both differing information sources and the presence of national benchmarks. It then analyzes retrospective voting using the largest data set on big-city mayoral elections between 1990 and 2011 to date. Neither crime rates nor property values consistently influence incumbent mayors’ vote shares, nor do changes in local conditions. However, low city-level unemployment relative to national unemployment correlates with higher incumbent support. The urban voter is a particular type of retrospective voter, one who compares local economic performance to conditions elsewhere. Moreover, these effects appear to be present only in cities that dominate their media markets, suggesting media outlets’ role in facilitating retrospective voting.

Hide All

Daniel J. Hopkins is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science, 208 S. 37th Street Room 208, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia PA 19104, USA ( Lindsay M. Pettingill, Data Scientist, Airbnb, 888 Brannan Street, San Francisco, CA 94110, USA ( The authors gratefully acknowledge the recommendations of PSRM editor Paul Kellstedt as well as the anonymous reviewers. This paper has benefitted substantially from research assistance by John Bullock, Julia Christensen, Zoe Dobkin, Patrick Gavin, Victoria Hay, Doug Kovel, Andrew Levine, and Monica Tong. It builds on a data set collected with the assistance of Katherine McCabe. The authors are very grateful to Douglas Arnold, John Bullock, Martin Christiansen, Peter Dinesen, Zoltan Hajnal, Gabriel Lenz, Neil Malhotra, Katherine McCabe, Jonathan Mummolo, Michael Peress, BK Song, Gaurav Sood, Jessica Trounstine, Chris Warshaw, and Hye Young You for comments, advice, and/or other assistance and to Jessica Trounstine for data on newspaper availability. The authors also express their gratitude to the Georgetown University Government Department for summer support to carry out this project. To view supplementary material for this article, please visit

Hide All
AlthausScott L., CizmarAnne M., and GimpelJames G.. 2009. ‘Media Supply, Audience Demand, and the Geography of News Consumption in the United States’. Political Communication 26(3):249277.
AnsolabehereStephen, MeredithMarc, and SnowbergErik. 2011. ‘Sociotropic Voting and the Media’. In John Aldrich and Kathleen McGraw (eds), Improving Public Opinion Surveys: Interdisciplinary Innovation and the American National Election Studies, 175189. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
ArceneauxKevin. 2006. ‘The Federal Face of Voting: Are Elected Officials Held Accountable for the Functions Relevant to Their Office?Political Psychology 27(5):731754.
ArnoldR. Douglas. 2004. Congress, the Press, and Political Accountability. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
ArnoldR. Douglas, and CarnesNicholas. 2012. ‘Holding Mayors Accountable: New York’s Executives from Koch to Bloomberg’. American Journal of Political Science 56(4):949963.
AshworthScott. 2012. ‘Electoral Accountability: Recent Theoretical and Empirical Work’. Annual Review of Political Science 15:183201.
AtkesonLonna Rae, and PartinRandall W.. 1995. ‘Economic and Referendum Voting: A Comparison of Gubernatorial and Senatorial Elections’. American Political Science Review 89(1):99107.
BartelsLarry M., and ZallerJohn. 2001. ‘Presidential Vote Models: A Recount’. Political Science & Politics 34(1):920.
BerryChristopher R., and HowellWilliam G.. 2007. ‘Accountability and Local Elections: Rethinking Retrospective Voting’. Journal of Politics 69(3):844858.
BleiDavid M., NgAndrew Y., and JordanMichael I.. 2003. ‘Latent Dirichlet Allocation’. Journal of Machine Learning Research 3:9931022.
BooksJohn, and PrysbyCharles L.. 1991. Political Behavior and the Local Context. New York, NY: Praeger.
BuurenCharles L. Van, BrandJaap P.L., Groothuis-OudshoornKarin (C.G.M.), and RubinDonald B.. 2006. ‘Fully Conditional Specification in Multivariate Imputation’. Journal of Statistical Computation and Simulation 76(12):10491064.
CarpiniMichael X. Delli, KeeterScott, and KennamerJ. David. 1994. ‘Effects of the News Media Environment on Citizen Knowledge of State Politics and Government’. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 71(2):443456.
CarseyThomas M., and WrightGerald C.. 1998. ‘State and National Factors in Gubernatorial and Senatorial Elections’. American Journal of Political Science 42(3):9941002.
CohenJeffrey E., and KingJames D.. 2004. ‘Relative Unemployment and Gubernatorial Popularity’. Journal of Politics 66(4):12671282.
de Benedictis-KessnerJustin, and WarshawChristopher. 2016. ‘Mayoral Partisanship and Municipal Fiscal Policy’. Journal of Politics 78(4):11241138.
Delli CarpiniMichael X., and KeeterScott. 1996. What Americans Know About Politics and Why it Matters. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Delli CarpiniMichael X., KeeterScott, and KennamerJ. David. 1994. ‘Effects of the News Media Environment on Citizen Knowledge of State Politics and Government’. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly 71(2):443456.
DuchRaymond M., and StevensonRandolph T.. 2008. The Economic Vote: How Political and Economic Institutions Condition Election Results. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
EbeidMichael, and RoddenJonathan. 2006. ‘Economic Geography and Economic Voting: Evidence from the US States’. British Journal of Political Science 36(3):527547.
FerreiraFernando, and GyourkoJoseph. 2009. ‘Do Political Parties Matter? Evidence from U.S. Cities’. Quarterly Journal of Economics 124(1):349397.
FischelWilliam A. 2001. The Homevoter Hypothesis: How Home Values Influence Local Government Taxation, School Finance, and Land-Use Policies. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
FolkeOlle, and SnyderJames M.. 2012. ‘Gubernatorial Midterm Slumps’. American Journal of Political Science 56(4):931948.
GasperJohn T., and ReevesAndrew. 2011. ‘Make it Rain? Retrospection and the Attentive Electorate in the Context of Natural Disasters’. American Journal of Political Science 55(2):340355.
GerberElisabeth R., and HopkinsDaniel J.. 2011. ‘When Mayors Matter: Estimating the Impact of Mayoral Partisanship on City Policy’. American Journal of Political Science 55(2):326339.
GrimmerJustin, and StewartBrandon M.. 2013. ‘Text as Data: The Promise and Pitfalls of Automatic Content Analysis Methods for Political Texts’. Political Analysis 21(3):267297.
HainmuellerJens, MummoloJonathan, and XuYiqing. 2016. ‘How Much Should we Trust Estimates from Multiplicative Interaction Models? Simple Tools to Improve Empirical Practice’. Working Paper, Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University.
HajnalZoltan L. 2007. Changing White Attitudes Toward Black Political Leadership. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
HajnalZoltan L., and TrounstineJessica. 2010. ‘Who or What Governs?: The Effects of Economics, Politics, Institutions, and Needs on Local Spending’. American Politics Research 38(6):1130.
HajnalZoltan L., and TrounstineJessica. 2014. ‘What Underlies Urban Politics? Race, Class, Ideology, Partisanship, and the Urban Vote’. Urban Affairs Review 50(1):6399.
HayesDanny, and LawlessJennifer L.. 2015. ‘As Local News Goes, So Goes Citizen Engagement: Media, Knowledge, and Participation in U.S. House Elections’. The Journal of Politics 77(2):447462.
HealyAndrew, and LenzGabriel S.. 2014a. ‘Presidential Voting and the Local Economy: Evidence from Two Population-Based Datasets’. Manuscript, Los Angeles, CA: Loyola Marymount University.
HealyAndrew, and LenzGabriel S.. 2014b. ‘Substituting the End for the Whole: Why Voters Respond Primarily to the Election-Year Economy’. American Journal of Political Science 58(1):3147.
HealyAndrew, and MalhotraNeil. 2009. ‘Myopic Voters and Natural Disaster Policy’. American Political Science Review 103(3):387406.
HealyAndrew, and MalhotraNeil. 2013. ‘Retrospective Voting Reconsidered’. Annual Review of Political Science 16:285306.
HealyAndrew J., MalhotraNeil, and MoCecilia Hyunjung. 2010. ‘Irrelevant Events Affect Voters’ Evaluations of Government Performance’. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(29):1280412809.
HetheringtonMarc J. 1996. ‘The Media’s Role in Forming Voters’ National Economic Evaluations’. American Journal of Political Science 40(2):372395.
HindmanMatthew S. 2009. The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
HoDaniel E., ImaiKosuke, KingGary, and StuartElizabeth A.. 2007. ‘Matching as Nonparametric Preprocessing for Reducing Model Dependence in Parametric Causal Inference’. Political Analysis 15(3):199236.
HopkinsDaniel J. 2009. ‘The Diversity Discount: When Increasing Ethnic and Racial Diversity Prevents Tax Increases’. The Journal of Politics 71(1):160177.
HopkinsDaniel J. 2010. ‘Politicized Places: Explaining Where and When Immigrants Provoke Local Opposition’. American Political Science Review 104(1):4060.
HopkinsDaniel J., and KingGary. 2010. ‘A Method of Automated Nonparametric Content Analysis for Social Science’. American Journal of Political Science 54(1):229247.
HopkinsDaniel J., and McCabeKatherine T.. 2012. ‘After It’s Too Late: Estimating the Policy Impacts of Black Mayoralties in US Cities’. American Politics Research 40(4):665700.
IyengarShanto. 1991. Is Anyone Responsible? How Television Frames Political Issues. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
KahnemanDaniel, and TverskyAmos. 1979. ‘Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision Under Risk’. Econometrica 47(2):263292.
KaufmannKaren M. 2004. The Urban Voter: Group Conflict and Mayoral Voting Behavior in American Cities. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
KayserMark Andreas, and PeressMichael. 2012. ‘Benchmarking Across Borders: Electoral Accountability and the Necessity of Comparison’. American Political Science Review 106(3):661684.
KiewietD. Roderick, and RiversDouglas. 1984. ‘A Retrospective on Retrospective Voting’. Political Behavior 6(4):369393.
KinderDonald R., and KiewietD. Roderick. 1981. ‘Sociotropic Politics: The American Case’. British Journal of Political Science 11:129161.
KramerGerald H. 1971. ‘Short-Term Fluctuations in U.S. Voting Behavior, 1896-1964’. American Political Science Review 65(1):131143.
KrinerDouglas L., and ShenFrancis X.. 2007. ‘Iraq Casualties and the 2006 Senate Elections’. Legislative Studies Quarterly 32(4):507530.
LaneRobert E. 1962. Political Ideology: Why the American Common Man Believes What he Does. New York, NY: The Free Press of Glencoe.
MacKuenMichael B., EriksonRobert S., and StimsonJames A.. 1992. ‘Peasants or Bankers? The American Electorate and the U.S. Economy’. American Political Science Review 86(3):597611.
MalhotraNeil, and KuoAlexander G.. 2008. ‘Attributing Blame: The Public’s Response to Hurricane Katrina’. The Journal of Politics 70(1):120135.
MarschallMelissa J., RuhilAnirudh V.S., and ShahParu R.. 2010. ‘The New Racial Calculus: Electoral Institutions and Black Representation in Local Legislatures’. American Journal of Political Science 54(1):107124.
MillerMichael K. 2013. ‘For the Win! The Effect of Professional Sports Records on Mayoral Elections’. Social Science Quarterly 94(1):5978.
Mollenkopf. 1992. A Phoenix in the Ashes: The Rise and Fall of the Koch Coalition in New York City Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
MutzDiana C. 1992. ‘Mass Media and the Depoliticization of Personal Experience’. American Journal of Political Science 32(3):483508.
MutzDiana C. 1994. ‘Contextualizing Personal Experience: The Role of Mass Media’. The Journal of Politics 56(3):689714.
MutzDiana C., and MondakJeffrey J.. 1997. ‘Dimensions of Sociotropic Behavior: Group-Based Judgments of Fairness and Well-Being’. American Journal of Political Science 41(1):284308.
NivolaPietro S. 2002. Tense Commandments: Federal Prescriptions and City Problems. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press.
OliverJ. Eric, and HaShang E.. 2007. ‘Vote Choice in Suburban Elections’. American Political Science Review 101(3):393408.
OliverJ. Eric, HaShang E., and CallenZachary. 2012. Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
PetersonPaul. 1981. City Limits. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Pew Center for the People and the Press. 2012. ‘State of the News Media 2012’. Technical report. Available at, accessed 24 January 2017.
PopkinSamuel. 1994. The Reasoning Voter: Communication and Persuasion in Presidential Campaigns. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
ReevesAndrew, and GimpelJames G.. 2012. ‘Ecologies of Unease: Geographic Context and National Economic Evaluations’. Political Behavior 34(3):507534.
RogersSteven. 2016. ‘National Forces in State Legislative Elections’. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 667(1):207225.
ShakerLee. 2014. ‘Dead Newspapers and Citizens’ Civic Engagement’. Political Communication 31(1):131148.
SnyderJames M., and StrombergDavid. 2010. ‘Press Coverage and Political Accountability’. Journal of Political Economy 118(2):355408.
SteinRobert M. 1990. ‘Economic Voting for Governor and US Senator: The Electoral Consequences of Federalism’. The Journal of Politics 52(1):2953.
SteinRobert M., UlbigStacy G., and PostStephanie Shirley. 2005. ‘Voting for Minority Candidates in Multiracial/Multiethnic Communities’. Urban Affairs Review 41(2):157181.
StoneClarence N. 1989. Regime Politics: Governing Atlanta 1946-1988. Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press.
TausanovitchChris, and WarshawChristopher. 2014. ‘Representation in Municipal Government’. American Political Science Review 108(3):605641.
TrounstineJessica L. 2009. Political Monopolies in American Cities: The Rise and Fall of Bosses and Reformers. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
TrounstineJessica L. 2011. ‘Evidence of a Local Incumbency Advantage’. Legislative Studies Quarterly 36(2):255280.
VavreckLynn. 2009. The Message Matters: The Economy and Presidential Campaigns. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
WolfersJustin. 2007. Are Voters Rational?: Evidence From Gubernatorial Elections. Palo Alto, CA: Graduate School of Business, Stanford University.
ZukinCliff, and SnyderRobin. 1984. ‘Passive Learning: When the Media Environment is the Message’. Public Opinion Quarterly 48(3):629638.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Political Science Research and Methods
  • ISSN: 2049-8470
  • EISSN: 2049-8489
  • URL: /core/journals/political-science-research-and-methods
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
Type Description Title
Supplementary Materials

Hopkins and Pettingill Dataset

Supplementary Materials

Hopkins and Pettingill supplementary material

 PDF (207 KB)
207 KB


Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 9
Total number of PDF views: 60 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 535 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 10th February 2017 - 22nd October 2017. This data will be updated every 24 hours.