Lost in Space? Information Shortcuts, Spatial Voting, and Local Government Representation

By Boudreau, Cheryl; Elmendorf, Christopher S. et al. | Political Research Quarterly, December 2015 | Go to article overview

Lost in Space? Information Shortcuts, Spatial Voting, and Local Government Representation


Boudreau, Cheryl, Elmendorf, Christopher S., MacKenzie, Scott A., Political Research Quarterly


Citizens in representative democracies take on vital responsibilities, the most important of which is to select public officials who make decisions on their behalf. However, if citizens are unable to identify political candidates who share their policy views, it is unlikely that the policies public officials adopt will reflect citizens' preferences. Previous research raises two concerns in this regard. First, ordinary citizens have little information about politics (Campbell et al. 1960; Delli Carpini and Keeter 1996). Second, the information shortcuts, or cues, that citizens use as substitutes for detailed political information may lead them astray (Boudreau 2013; Dancey and Sheagley 2013; Kuklinski and Quirk 2000).

Such concerns loom large in local elections, where voters select candidates for prominent offices (e.g., mayor) with the power to shape policy outcomes in their community. However, because many local elections are nonpartisan, voters are often deprived of party labels that distinguish candidates' policy positions. Even partisan local elections may make choosing like-minded candidates difficult, as national party labels often fail to signal candidates' local policy views. Further complicating matters are the greater number of candidates who often enter local elections, the relative lack of media coverage of local campaigns (Kam and Zechmeister 2013), and the more complex voting rules (e.g., rank choice voting [RCV]) these elections sometimes use (Burnett and Kogan 2015).

Our study assesses whether voters choose candidates who share their policy views (i.e., vote spatially) in a nonpartisan local election as well as how cues affect their ability to do so. To this end, we conduct original surveys that ask candidates in the 2011 mayoral election in San Francisco to take positions on prominent local policy issues during the campaign. We ask voters to report their positions on these same policy issues, as well as which candidates they voted for, on a written exit poll. We use these policy positions to construct comparable measures of candidate and voter ideology (ideal points) and examine how ideology affects voters' choices. In doing so, we create the first objective measures of candidate and voter ideology in a local election. We also experimentally manipulate two cues that might affect voters' choices in local elections-endorsements from political parties and newspapers with local ideological reputations-and examine their effects on voters' propensity to choose ideologically-similar candidates.

By creating objective, comparable measures of candidate and voter ideology in a nonpartisan local election and by embedding experiments, we make three important contributions to previous research. First, previous research typically examines spatial voting in partisan elections at the presidential or congressional level (Jessee 2009, 2010; Joesten and Stone 2014; Shor and Rogowski 2010; Stone and Simas 2010) or in primary elections (Ahler, Citrin, and Lenz 2015; Hirano et al. 2015; Sides and Vavreck 2014). In contrast, we examine whether this prominent theory of voting behavior applies in local elections. Second, similar to studies of primary elections, we examine spatial voting in a context where party labels are not available to guide voters' decisions and where ideology and partisanship are not "sorted" (i.e., the partisanship of candidates/voters is not necessarily predictive of their policy views; see Levendusky 2009). Third, by experimentally manipulating cues, we extend the experimental literature that investigates how cues affect citizens' decisions (Boudreau 2009; Kuklinski et al. 2001; Lupia and McCubbins 1998), but that typically does not examine spatial voting as the outcome of interest (for an exception, see Sniderman and Stiglitz 2012).

Our findings show a strong relationship between voters' ideology and the ideology of the candidates they choose. However, our experiments reveal that political party and newspaper endorsements weaken this relationship. …

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Lost in Space? Information Shortcuts, Spatial Voting, and Local Government Representation
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