Would limiting big money in city mayoral races help address low turnout?

An article at Citylab details efforts by some large American cities to limit big money in local mayoral races:

Several localities—including Portland, Denver, and Baltimore—have initiatives in motion to overhaul the system either by driving down the dollar amounts each person can give or solicit, piloting public financing projects that make each donated dollar go further, or both. The overarching goal is to keep big money and its influence out of local politics, and to give all candidates a fair shot.

In Denver, voters will decide on an expansive reform package, including a contribution cap and a generous matching fund. Baltimore’s city council has unanimously passed a charter amendment that would create a similar small-dollar matching system, if Mayor Catherine Pugh approves it and passes it along to the fall ballot. And before Portland, Oregon, phases in its own public financing measure in 2020, voters will decide on a strict local contribution cap this November…

Large political donors recognize that local races have national implications, and are willing to fund mayoral or city council candidates to build party power strategically. “At the state and local level, races historically have been far less expensive than federal races,” said Joanna Zdanys, counsel for the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program. But that also means, she says, “given the low cost of state and local races, a big expenditure by a deep-pocketed, special-interest spender has the potential to really overwhelm a candidate.”

And potential city leaders, in turn, are hiring national media consultants who recommend large budgets and high spending. Local campaigns have become more professional, with sleek campaign mailers and digital or TV ad spots.

I wonder how this goal of making mayoral races more open fits with limited turnout for local elections in many American communities.

The 2015 mayoral election in Denver had a total of 94,525 votes cast. The total population is near 700,000.

The 2016 mayoral election in Portland had a total of 193,083 votes cast. The total population is over 600,000.

The 2016 mayoral election in Baltimore had a total of 222,593 votes cast. In contrast, the 2011 mayoral election had a total of 46,223 votes cast. The total population is over 610,000.

Does big money suppress voter turnout? I could see how a case would be made for this: the introduction of big money behind one candidate makes it appear as if the outcome is a slam dunk.

Or, is the issue of voter turnout one that will continue to linger even if money is more evenly distributed across candidates? For a variety of reasons, many municipal officials are elected to office with a relatively low level of support from all of the voter-eligible citizens. Considering the influence big-city mayors can have, this seems strange, particularly since Americans tend to favor local government.

Fighting for suburban votes in the Illinois gubernatorial race

Like many state and national political races, the path to being elected governor of Illinois runs through suburbia:

In 2014, Rauner defeated former Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn with a big assist from DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties. The Chicago region contributed 62 percent of statewide votes for governor in 2014. Without Chicago, the suburbs generated 44 percent of ballots cast in Illinois…

Reason No. 1 “is the raw number of independent/swing voters in the collar counties,” Morris said…

Another lure for Pritzker and Rauner is that collar county turnout is typically higher compared to elsewhere during nonpresidential election years, analysts say…

A final reason for the suburban surge is bragging rights. With the future of the presidency looming large, both candidates want their coattails to decide the fate of congressional seats in play like the 6th District.

With over 50% of Americans living in suburbs and consistent patterns of urban residents voting for Democrats and rural voters going for Republicans, this is the truly purple part of America. And, we can probably be even more specific about which suburban voters by geography are up for grabs: those living in inner-ring suburbs and closer to the big city lean Democratic and those farther out and on the exurban fringe lean Republican. These patterns are replicated in Illinois: Chicago will deliver big votes for Pritzker, downstate/more rural Illinois will deliver votes for Rauner, and the winner will be decided by suburbanites who often can be swayed.

It would be fascinating to see the suburban microtargeting data of both Illinois candidates. Does Pritzker think there are enough working-class suburbanites? Does Rauner think generally favorable economic conditions in the conditions lifted the boats of enough suburbanites to vote Republican? Who targets which suburban racial and ethnic groups? While the article suggests both candidates are making numerous suburban campaign stops, it might be worth keeping track of which suburbs and which groups receive attention.

Suburban culture and voters summed up by Furbys, soccer moms, and two minivans

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made recent comments about who Democratic House members are and who are they are trying to appeal to. Her argument about these leaders being stuck in “90s politics” included this bit:

Their heyday was in the ’90s when kids had, like, Furbys, and soccer moms had, like, two vans. That’s not America anymore!

While a number of suburbanites and right-wing commentators have suggested her comments are off-base and are attacking a suburban way of life, she is both right and wrong:

  1. The American suburbs have changed. They are more non-white and poorer than they were in the 1990s. Ocasio-Cortez’s own life story is a testament to these changes. The suburbs today are much more diverse.
  2. She cites several material markers of suburban culture from the 1990s: Furbys and minivans. These were indeed real and to some degree are not as popular today. However, replace the minivan with the hipper SUV and there is little difference. (Additionally, she could have strengthened her case by adding McMansions to the 1990s mix since they arose as a term in this decade.)
  3. The “soccer moms” claim is the most interesting one to me. On one hand, it was political shorthand from the 1990s to describe a group that both parties wanted to target: women in the suburbs who drove their kids to soccer games and other activities. Those people still exist and, if anything, the number of suburban activities kids normally pursue has probably only increased. On the other hand, rarely do political candidates or prognosticators talk about soccer moms even as the current battleground is the middle suburbs. While Ocasio-Cortez has to think about her own potential constituents, there are still plenty of suburbanites who would be turned off by talk claiming that their time is over. Even if soccer moms is not a valid category (nor is NASCAR dads), suburban voters in their multiple strata are still worth courting.

To sum up, the majority of Americans still live in suburbs. Suburban communities and culture may have changed but the interests of suburbanites still matter in local, state, and national races.

Win political office with low turnout in municipal elections

Even large cities have problems with voter turnout in municipal elections:

Voter turnout in local elections has always been low, and it’s gotten worse in recent decades, studies of voting behavior in municipal elections have shown. In most of the biggest U.S. cities, fewer than one-third of eligible voters turned out in the most recent municipal elections. And according to data culled by researchers at Portland State University, those who do cast ballots in major cities tend to be significantly older than the general population, a factor that might weigh against women and candidates from diverse backgrounds.

My impression of elected officials in suburbs is that a good number get into local elections because they care deeply about an issue. With low turnout, relatively small communities, and a lack of formal political parties (many smaller municipal elections are supposedly non-partisan), it does not take a lot of resources to run for local office.

Of course, some of these variables are different at the big city level: often dominated by partisan politics, a larger need for significant sums of money, and a need to woo tens of thousands of voters. Still, it is notable that the leaders of some of the most important cities in the world can be voted in with votes from a relatively small number of citizens. These local leaders may not be able to easily move into national positions yet their decisions affect residents on a daily basis in a way that more abstract and further removed national politics cannot.

Suburban voters could give Democrats House majority

The hopes the Democrats have to recapture the House depend on suburban voters:

In the last two weeks, Democrats scored an upset in southwest Pennsylvania and dominated the voting in the Republican suburbs outside Chicago. President Donald Trump, who never won over suburbia, continues to get poor marks from the educated, upper income Americans who often call it home. After Democratic victories in state legislative contests in Virginia and special elections across the country — even a stunning Senate election in Republican-dominated Alabama — Republicans have plenty of reason to worry that commuter country may be their undoing in the fight for control of the House in November’s midterm elections…

Democrats need to pick up 23 seats to take the majority — a task made particularly challenging by the way House districts currently are drawn to favor Republicans. Still, any House majority is built on suburban success.

Republicans control most rural and small-town districts, where Trump finds his strongest political support. Democrats dominate districts anchored in big cities, where Trump opposition is fiercest. The party in charge will be the one that wins the battle in between, where the electorate often is the sort of ideological and demographic mix that defines a two-party battleground…

Democrats’ target list starts with nearly two dozen Republican-held seats where Hillary Clinton bested Trump in 2016. The list is heavy on seats in California and the northeast — suburbs outside Philadelphia and New York — corners of Democratic-leaning states where Trump didn’t win over wealthier, moderate Republicans. Now the GOP fears that those weaknesses are spreading further from big-city centers and also into suburban districts around mid-size and smaller metropolitan areas.

While the narrative in this election cycle will certainly involve Trump, there is more going on with suburban voters. The voters in many suburbs can be persuaded by a different party every election cycle. This is partly due to the changing nature of suburbs where there are now more diverse populations and changing economic conditions. The suburbs have many people who want to protect their own interests as well as ensure a good future for their children. Still, suburbanites closer to cities will tend to vote Democrat and those further out will tend to vote Republican.

Many Americans are in the muddled political middle of the suburbs

A CNN digital vice president describes how the American suburbs defy easy categorization:

Most Americans are neither coastal elites nor inhabitants of flyover country (both objectionable tropes on their face). Most Americans live in the suburbs, a geographic term the US government is curiously loath to define. But suburbanites are not; a survey by an economist at Trulia, the online real-estate site, finds that 53% of Americans say they live in one. The suburbs mirror US demographic trends; minorities represent 35% of suburban residents, and in 2010, the share of blacks in large metro areas living in the suburbs surpassed 51%, meaning the majority of black Americans are suburbanites, according to Brookings.

Political scientists talk about the rural-urban divide as the defining issue of the 20th century, but the suburbs in America defy this simple categorization. Some areas exhibit the same traits of cities, where neighbors don’t know each others’ names, let alone their politics. Schools in urban areas are more segregated than ever, some worse than before Brown vs. Board of Education. Suburbs, in contrast, have created more diverse spaces, from schools to soccer leagues to the local Olive Garden…

But America does not live on Facebook, even if it sometimes feels that way. Americans live in places that care about jobs and schools and taxes. Issues such as health care and anti-corruption efforts seem to matter to suburban voters more than immigration. Brookings also reports the suburbs are growing faster than urban areas, partly because of the lack of affordable housing in cities, making them younger, more diverse. Their outlook — and values — feel increasingly cosmopolitan.

The implication at the end of this is that suburbanites are a reasonable lot who just want good things for themselves and their communities. But, although they are a majority of Americans, they are stuck between polarized far-right/left groups that dominate the conversations.

Is this true? My quick answer is yes and no. Indeed, American suburbs are quite different from the stereotype of white nuclear families living in the 1950s mass-produced housing. The demographic changes have been impressive. At the same time, the suburbs are not an ideal landscape where residents always want the best for others: they are often marked by limited interactions and relationships, hoarding of resources, and exclusion.

There is little doubt that the suburbs are the battleground for American politics right now. But which way they will lean, which parties and candidates will be able to appeal to them, and how they will continue to change remains to be seen.

Three questions for political leaders as suburbs offer key to 2018 elections

The suburbs may continue in 2018 to be the true political battlegrounds in the United States:

The mounting backlash to President Trump that is threatening his party’s control of Congress is no longer confined just to swing districts on either coast. Officials in both parties believe that Republican control of the House is now in grave jeopardy because a group of districts that are historically Republican or had been trending that way before the 2016 election are slipping away…

From Texas to Illinois, Kansas to Kentucky, there are Republican-held seats filled with college-educated, affluent voters who appear to be abandoning their usually conservative leanings and newly invigorated Democrats, some of them nonwhite, who are eager to use the midterms to take out their anger on Mr. Trump.

“If you look at the patterns of where gains are being made and who is creating the foundation for those gains, it’s the same: An energized Democratic base is linking arms with disaffected suburban voters,” said Mayor Rahm Emanuel of Chicago, who as a member of Congress in 2006 helped Democrats win back the House. “The president’s conduct has basically given voters this permission slip to go against the Republicans.”…

The suburban revolt, which began in a handful of little-noticed special elections and then exploded last month in governor’s and state House races in Virginia, was on display again on Tuesday in Alabama, where Doug Jones, a Democrat, claimed a stunning Senate win thanks to African-Americans and upscale whites.

This is not a new thing to watch: the suburbs have contained the real swing voters for at least the last few election cycles. These voters in middle suburbs, between inner-ring suburbs and the exurbs, can be swayed by either party depending on the situation.

A few thoughts about the upcoming 2018 elections:

  1. While this almost certainly means a lot of money will be spent in these districts, it will be interesting to watch how many political leaders visit such locations. For example, if you are a Democratic leader trying to woo voters in DuPage County (who voted pretty strongly for Hilary Clinton in what was considered a solidly Republican county), will you actually visit places like Villa Park and Carol Stream or will you stick to Chicago and hope you get enough attention in the big city?
  2. In wooing suburban voters, will sprawl be an issue on the table? Many metropolitan areas have large regional problems including inequality across communities (the residential and class segregation of big cities has been replicated to some degree in suburban areas) and congestion. Will Democrats push for more metropolitan initiatives and reducing the growth further out from the city or is this a losing pitch in a country where many Americans still seem to like the idea of a suburban home?
  3. How will Democrats approach wealthier suburban voters in blue states that have significant state issues? I’m thinking of places like Connecticut, New Jersey, and Illinois that have massive budget issues. What can Democrats offer on a national platform that would suburban voters could find attractive for helping their state? Or how would suburban candidates address affordable housing, another major issue in many regions, and who exactly should help or sacrifice to help such housing be built?