Defining Local Politics: Three Essays on Voters, Media, and Representatives

Burke, Richard, Government - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Kirkland, Justin, AS-Dept of Politics, University of Virginia

This dissertation examines representation in city governments across the United States. In the first essay, I derived hypotheses about the relationship between one's self-interest and partisanship in their preferences for local policies. I turned to the case of homeowners and their preferences for lower property taxes to test these hypotheses. First, I relied on data from a conjoint survey experiment (n=2,036). Through this survey experiment, I found that homeowners were more likely to prioritize property taxes than non-homeowners, and that they are more likely to select a candidate who supported lower property taxes than non-homeowners. However, homeowners did not express stronger preferences for lower property taxes when evaluating candidates from the opposing party. Next, I turned to observational data from the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES), which asked respondents to grade zoning and development policy in their local community, as well as their mayor. In general, I found that homeowners were more likely than non-homeowners to credit their mayor for favorable perceptions of zoning and development policy regardless of their mayor's party. I found suggestive evidence that partisanship diminished self-interest among homeowners with low levels of local political engagement.

In the second essay of this dissertation, I argued that the relationship between public opinion and government performance is conditional on media coverage. I turned to three different sets of data to test this claim. First, I matched 25 years of mayoral approval and economic data from New York City with New York Times coverage during the same period. Next, I paired mayoral approval data from the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) with mayoral news coverage from 40 large cities. Finally, I extended my hypothesis to governors and demonstrated the robustness of my findings among a different class of subnational executives. In all three tests, I found strong evidence that the relationship between economic performance and the public's attitudes toward incumbents was conditional on whether media focused on the economy in its coverage of incumbents.

In the third and final essay of this dissertation, I examined political priorities among big-city mayors. I used State of the City (SOTC) addresses from 59 cities between the years 2015 and 2021 to construct measures of mayoral priorities for five different issue areas: the economy, crime, schools, housing, and homelessness. I hypothesized that both local conditions and political partisanship influenced the degree to which mayors prioritize these issues. I found evidence that mayoral priorities were responsive to changes in the economy, schools, and housing. I also demonstrated that responsiveness was influenced by a city's political institutions. I found little evidence that a mayor's partisanship influenced their priorities.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Local politics, Public Opinion, Political Communication
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