Bryan Caplan  

Schleicher's Model of One-Party Democracy

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As promised, Volokh guest blogger David Schleicher posted his preferred explanation for the persistence of one-party urban democracy.  As first glance, his story seems pretty different from mine.  Here's his lead-in: "I argue that the lack of competition in city council elections can only be explained by understanding the laws governing local elections and how they interact with voter behavior."

At least on my reading, though, election laws play no fundamental role in Schleicher's story; it's his assumptions about "voter behavior" assumptions that matter.  And I'm pleased to report that Scheicher and I turn out to be roughly on the same page.  He explains:
[T]he vote in local elections will directly track the vote in national elections. Voters with little information will use the information that the law provides to them - the party name on the ballot. If "Republican" and "Democrat" provide a non-zero amount of information about a candidate, a voter with no other information (by assumption) about the candidate will rationally use the national party heuristic to vote.

The question is why the minority local party doesn't modify its issue stances to become popular at the local level. By assumption, the only way it could do this is if it did so on a city-wide level - individual candidates can't get enough attention...

Schleicher closes with a great anecdote:

The dramatic effect of the lack of information on local city council elections can be seen if one considers the case of New York City's Councilmanic District Five on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. In the 2001 local election, Gifford Miller, a powerful and well-known Democratic incumbent who directly after the election would become Speaker of the City Council, faced a relatively unknown candidate named Robert Strougo. Not surprisingly, Miller won 68 percent of the vote to Strougo's 31 percent, neatly tracking the 2-1 dominance of Democrats in the district.

In 2005, a perfect storm of factors lined up to reverse this result. First, Miller could not run for reelection because of term limits. His aide, Jessica Lappin, who had never run for public office before, was the Democratic candidate. Second, Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg reached new heights of popularity, particularly on the Upper East Side (he would end up winning 59 percent of the citywide vote and more than 80 percent of the vote on the Upper East Side). In District Five, the Republicans nominated Joel Zinberg, a former Democrat, cancer surgeon and Yale-educated lawyer, who built his candidacy around Bloomberg's popularity, declaring his goal as furthering the Mayor's agenda. The New York Times and the New York Post endorsed Zinberg, as did Bloomberg. In the face of this, Lappin's campaign simply sounded a single theme. When asked by a local paper what differentiated the candidates, she responded, "I'm a Democrat. I mean, that's sort of the most obvious difference between us... He's a Republican, and I'm proud to be a Democrat, and I think that certainly distinguishes us."

The result of the election was a near carbon copy of the 2001 race: Lappin received 65 percent of the vote to Zinberg's 35 percent.
My only quibble is that my "party preference" mechanism seems to fit the facts better than Schleicher's "lack of information" story.  He could naturally reply that "party preference" is based on "lack of information," but I'm not so sure.  Why can't we just look upon New York Democrats as the political equivalent of the New York Yankees?

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
tom writes:

Why isn't the simple answer 'natural monopoly'? Huge costs involved in setting up the network of patronage, almost impossibly huge costs in establishing a rival network.

Z writes:

Schleicher's answer is very sensible. Given that most voters don't know the names of both vice presidential candidates, why would you expect them to know anything about the policy positions of the candidates for city council?

As Richard Nixon's head once said, "Computers may be twice as fast as they were in 1973, but your average voter is as drunk and stupid as ever."

Lord writes:

Accountability, I think. The opposition always has a good excuse for accomplishing nothing, but those in power have little.

dearieme writes:

The post above this one ends with a question directed at the reader but there seems to be no comment box in which to answer it.

[found, fixed, thanks.--Econlib Ed.]

ryan yin writes:

It's curious how this model works when you're talking about a very small country (i.e, where the city is a large portion of the total population, or is actually a city-state). It seems easier to construct a model where a national brand conveys information that is generally a good estimator but perhaps deeply biased in certain local situations. But if the city and the country are roughly synonymous, how can the national brand be a biased estimator? (I'm confused about how this works with the party preference, too. Is the preference entirely exogenous? If not, what explains why 2nd parties can't rebrand?)

sourcreamus writes:

The analogy to the yankees is a good one. Political parties are like teams. It feels good when your team wins and bad when your team loses. Once a political party builds a machine that is effective, it becomes harder and harder for the other party to get votes because no one wants to join a losing team either as a candidate or as a voter. Thus one party gets stronger as its voters are constantly reinforced and the opposition party gets weaker as its voters are never reinforced.

DSchleicher writes:

Great comments everyone (particularly Bryan). I'm not going to try to answer all these questions, but here are a few thoughts...

1. Tom -- usually we discuss elections in a single-member-district/first past teh post system as a natural monopoly (you can find my paper on ssrn of the implications of natural monopoly theory for elections and election law). The problem is why city elections are more of a natural monopoly than state or federal elections.

2. Ryan -- I'm not sure it can. One-party democracy in small and big countries (japan and mexico during the 20th century) needs another explanation. This is a model developed to explain party competition in nested systems of elections. (It can explain systems with dominant local parties and uncompetitive national elections -- if you're interested, feel free to email me and we can talk about it).

3. Bryan -- This is a bigger challenge than I can respond to here, but just at the level of metaphor -- shouldn't competition drive away some fan loyalty? When a new team moves to town, it takes away some fans. (This, for instance, is why the Baltimore Orioles got a huge check when the Washington Nationals moved into their region -- because it reduced their fan base.) Whether it's policies or fan attraction or some combination, competition should have an effect on both and we need an explanation for why competition doesn't come in. Further, where leagues that rely on competition to produce a good product (like sports leagues, and Downsian models of democracy) see a huge imbalance -- think the Cosmos of the NASL or the Yankees of a few years back -- the league usually does something to make sure competition returns (salary cap; profit sharing).

As I said earlier, though, I probably need to think about how different models of party attachment effect the model/future work.


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