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Monday, May 07, 2012

Ain't No Party Like a Bloomberg Party Because a Bloomberg Party Don't Stop (Or, You Know, Have to Deal With Term Limits)

            One thing I have always enjoyed is spending other people's money.   (I know, I know -- who doesn't?).  So here's my idea for how Michael Bloomberg should spend his money after his Mayoral term ends in 2013.  He should create an urban-centric governance brand or even better an urban-elections only political party.  The Bloomberg Party. 

            As the rest of the country revs up for elections this fall, New York City is already preparing for a major political event in 2013: a Mayoral race without an incumbent.  One of the weird things about the next Mayoral election is that it is likely that there will be no representative of Bloombergism, unless, perhaps, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly gets into the race, but that noted Hamlet (or Mario) seems to be more interested in talking about maybe running than actually doing it.  So the City has an incumbent Mayor who has been reelected three times and maintains pretty solid approval ratings.  Despite this, he has no co-partisans in the City Council or elsewhere in local politics to run on a stay-the-course platform.  The closest, City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, is a Democrat who has taken steps to distance herself from an incumbent with 54% approval.   City voters will not get to choose between a candidate offering change and one arguing to keep things as they are, but instead will face a variety of candidates about whom little is known.

             This is an example of a major weakness of urban politics.  But this weakness could be -- maybe -- solved or mitigated by Mayor Bloomberg throwing some of his vast fortune at the problem.  

(This ended up being pretty long, so I threw it all below the fold.  But do read on if you're interested in why there's no partisan competition in city council elections, how one might define Bloombergism as an ideology, or in the work of the artist who provided the model for the title of this post.) 

        As I've argued here and here and as Chris Elmendorf and I argue in this new paper, big American cities have an endemic problem -- a lack of party competition based on local issues.  Voters everywhere know little about individual candidates for legislative office, and big city legislative races are no different (and are frequently worse).  However, in federal elections, voters can rely on party labels to help them vote.  Parties, after all, provide on-ballot information about the policy stances of candidates running under the party's banner.   And as long as the parties are consistent over time and roughly divide the electorate on issues relevant to the level of government, they provide voters with useful heuristics and, as a result, incumbent parties feel at least some pressure to cater to the median voter.  We need not go overboard here, either about how much parties improve voter competence or in suggesting a strong form of the median voter hypothesis, except to say that an electoral system with parties that take relatively consistent stances on issues relevant to a level of government improve voter competence and responsiveness of officials.   

            That's how federal elections work -- you can learn just about everything you'd need to know about a candidate for the House by learning her party.  But it's not how big city local elections work.   Big city elections are either formally non-partisan or are dominated by one party, usually Democrats.   The reason for this is what I've called "mismatch," or the way state laws and predictable facts about voters interact to produce a single party system even where there is little correlation between preferences about national and local issues.  Voters faced with Democrats and Republicans on the ballot will use these heuristics even if they are pretty useless because they don't have any other information about candidates.   (In New York City this is certainly true.  Can anyone name more than one important local issue on which all or most Democrats agree but non-Democrats don't?  The recent living wage bill fight is the exception that proves the rule.   And yet, and despite the intermittent but real popularity of the last two Republican Mayors, the Democrats have controlled the City Council with a vast majority, their vote directly tracking the Presidential vote in NYC.)

            But why don't the parties adapt and create competition?  State laws (e.g. laws that make party switching difficult, require primaries and guarantee ballot access to national parties) and strategic problems internal to parties mean that parties have little ability to rebrand themselves at the local level.  And the ordinary barriers to third-party entry in a first past the post system mean that local-only third parties don't rise.  (There's only one in the country, Cincinnati's Charter Party.)  Because Democrats dominate national elections at the local level, they end up dominating local elections, except for super high-profile races like Mayor of New York.   And incumbent officials have few incentives to be responsive to public preferences, as their performance in office has little to do with election results, which turn almost entirely on voter opinion about the President of the United States.  (For a cool state legislative example, see this chart, which shows that state legislative results directly track Congressional results.)  The only competition in local legislative races is in primaries, but voters in these elections have even less information than voters with weak local party brands -- they have no heuristic at all.  Voters in local primaries (and non-partisan races as well) end up relying really heavily on incumbency, endorsements by non-ideological party groups, and things like ethnic, racial and gender status. 

            Can anything be done about this?  Chris and I suggest some reforms, the easiest to implement of which would be allowing Mayors to make on-ballot endorsements in City Council races.  Voters do know things about high-profile incumbent Mayors, and the goal would be to turn the images of high-profile Mayors into quasi-party brands that voters can use down the ballot. 

            But Bloomberg and perhaps Bloomberg alone has other possibilities -- he could simply pay to publicize and institutionalize his own local governance brand.  This wouldn't be as good as a party label on the ballot, as it wouldn't be able to influence voters at the most crucial moment and it's long-term success would be limited by not having anything formal (like ballot access) to offer candidates for hewing to the party line.  But as long as it was backed by gobs of money, it might work, particularly in cities with non-partisan city elections. 

            The idea is pretty simple.  Bloomberg, or some Bloomberg related organization, would make very public endorsements of candidates who share his ideological commitments and then run lots of campaign ads for them that heavily feature their connection to his brand of governance.   The key would be building a controversial platform that roughly bisected the electorate on local issues.  This branding (and opposition to it) might help introduce competition at the local level.  Fortunately, Bloomberg himself has developed exactly such a platform.  He should take it down the ballot and across cities, paying for the campaigns of people willing to endorse his ideology of urban governance.   If it worked, it would create a quasi-party brand.  

            Bloomberg is frequently described as an un-ideological technocrat.  This is surely wrong, although it's true that left-right politics don't do much to describe the issues facing big city Mayors.  In fact, Bloomberg has taken controversial stances on almost all issues of local governance and there is much local disagreement about his stances on issues ranging from education to policing to land use.  He should take those stances and turn them into as criteria for getting the Bloomberg seal of approval (and cash for ads). 

            Candidates for City Council in, say, the six biggest cities in the country could qualify for campaign money and public endorsement if they adopted this platform (which one might call, roughly speaking, Bloombergism). 

        Maybe I missed something that should be included -- support for the high taxes necessary to provide services in a "luxury" city, a commitment to open data? -- but you get the idea.  These are things associated with Bloomberg on which there is widespread disagreement among residents of big cities.  A Bloomberg endorsement and  buckets of cash would separate candidates from their opponents on ideological grounds on contested issues.  It would also hopefully engender a response -- a Neighborhood Party to oppose this metropolitan vision of local governance. 

        Bloomberg is unique in local politics for both having a relatively clear vision of what cities can and should do and for having lots and lots of money.  If he wants to promote the future of urban America, he could do worse than creating the preconditions for ideological competition in urban elections.

Oh, and for those of you drawn in by the title of the post, here is Coolio's Sumpin New



Posted by David Schleicher on May 7, 2012 at 01:57 PM | Permalink


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