Size, Scope, and Bias: What Differentiates
Local Electoral Politics?
ON APRIL 7, 2009, voters in the Illinois towns of Lyons, Carpentersville, Palatine, and Bensenville did something unusual—t hey did not reelect their governing mayors. Reporting on these results, the Chicago Tribune speculated on why these candidates lost, a surprising event considering that most of their fellow incumbents in nearby towns won. For each place, the Tribune had a seemingly unique explanation: in Lyons, the serving mayor inadvertently made a series of sexist and racist remarks on tape; in Carpentersville, the village president had a long history of fights with the city council; in Palatine, the incumbent faced a challenge from a former star player for the Chicago Bears; and in Bensenville, a concerted effort from Chicago’s neighboring Daley political organization unseated the incumbent because of his opposition to an airport expansion project.1 But while these explanations sound plausible, there is no way of differentiating their factual basis from mere speculation. We have no idea if mayors are more likely to be unseated when they face former football stars or if making racist remarks is fatal to holding office, because we have no systematic explanations about how people vote in small-scale elections.
Why do we know so little about local elections? Part of the problem lies with our understanding of elections in general. Most political observers view elections the way Gertrude Stein saw roses—as categorically similar phenomena.2 In other words, voters
1Chicago Tribune, April 7, 2009: http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/clout_st/2009/04/ election-results-arlington-heights-aurora-bensenville-carpentersville-deerfield-des-plaineselmhurst.html.
2 Stein’s famous quip “a rose is a rose is a rose” could be translated as “an election is an election is an election.”