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Retrospective Voting in Big-City US Mayoral Elections*

  • Daniel J. Hopkins and Lindsay M. Pettingill

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.

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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

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