Lessons from the Elections of November 2013

Lessons from the Elections of November 2013

What municipal elections are about

Just in case you missed it, Tuesday, November 5, 2013, was an election day. It’s that old “first Tuesday after the first Monday” thing.

Of course, this is an odd year (that’s meant to be a statement about a number, nothing more), so there weren’t that many elections taking place compared to, say, November 6, 2012, or November 4, 2014. Still, millions of voters cast ballots in statewide elections in places like New Jersey and Virginia and in municipal elections in places like Sandy City, Utah, and Spartanburg, S.C. In both of these cities, by the way, the incumbent mayor won re-election.

A fascinating book by J. Eric Oliver (with Shang E. Ha and Zachary Callen), Local Elections and the Politics of Small-Scale Democracy, would suggest to observers of elections that the patterns evident in municipal elections are very different from those in elections for statewide office or even for state legislative seats.

For example, one might try to read the political tea leaves now that the campaign cup has been drained in the New Jersey and Virginia governors’ races. One might look at exit polls and campaign messages and speculate about whether Virginia’s reversal of decades of tradition (in electing a governor from the party of the sitting U.S. president) bodes well for Democrats in 2014, or whether Governor Chris Christie’s sweeping victory, with substantial support from Latinos, suggests new breaks in the ethnic coalition that sustained the President Obama election in 2012.One might decide that all such speculation, given the complexity of the very mixed messages the data seem to deliver, might simply be a futile gesture (or an exercise in partisan wishful thinking . . . on all sides). But one can imagine that such elections could be indicators of the trends in national politics.

Oliver and colleagues argue, however, that municipal elections are rarely if ever about such sweeping trends. On rare occasion, a municipal election gets “nationalized”; themes current in national politics play out with considerable force (or at least visibility) in a city contest. We’ve even see such an event in this cycle of municipal elections, where the NRA ran TV ads against Lakeland’s incumbent mayor, Gow Fields, for his support of Michael Bloomberg’s gun control initiative. Mr. Fields was unseated Tuesday by Lakeland Commissioner Howard Wiggs. But Commissioner Wiggs, for his part, saw the race in very local terms, with emphasis on trouble in the Lakeland Police Department being the focus of much of his campaign efforts.

In St. Petersburg, where former state legislator Rick Kriseman defeated incumbent Mayor Bill Foster, the real battle seems to have been about local issues like the Pier and the Rays . . . or, perhaps, about many other, even more local matters related to neighborhoods and community concerns.

What it wasn’t about was the national debate about the rollout of Obamacare or NSA snooping into our phone and email records.

And that’s a critical point for students and practitioners of municipal politics.

As Oliver and colleagues note, compared to the state of the science of examining and handicapping presidential races and, to a lesser extent, races for Congress, political scientists are nearly completely ignorant about the forces at work in municipal elections. Debating the direction of a city is a very different thing from debating the path of federal policy.

And the good news is that, in those debates in St. Petersburg and Lakeland and Sandy City and Spartanburg, people who know each other and know their cities deal with real world problems in practical terms . . . most of the time. And whether our preferred candidate wins or loses, we can be pretty sure that the winner will do his or her best to make sure the people of the city are well-served.

Because that’s what municipal elections are about.

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