Politicians, Take Note: More Potholes Mean Fewer Votes
A new academic paper that uses San Diego as a case study suggests voters punish candidates for potholes – just not enough to oust an incumbent.
San Diego’s streets are bad and have been bad for a while. But do voters really care?
That’s what Ohio State University political science professor Vladimir Kogan set out to answer. Kogan, a former Voice of San Diego reporter, wanted to know whether voters punish local elected officials for perceived bad performance.
In a new paper, Kogan and his co-author, Craig Burnett from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, found that every pothole complaint lodged within six months of Election Day reduced an incumbent’s Election Day total by an average of 0.2 percentage points. So five pothole complaints in a particular precinct would on average cut that incumbent’s vote total by a full point in that neighborhood.
“Although this effect is not particularly large, it is meaningful in substantive terms,” the authors conclude. “In a close election, local road quality could determine whether the incumbent wins another term or loses the election.”
For a while, there’s been a debate in political science over whether local elected officials get re-elected for anything under their control. Lots of academics have theorized that issues like economic performance, crime rates or even how well sports teams perform can help determine local elections. Kogan concluded that something local politicians actually can impact – road quality – can matter.
But potholes won’t necessarily make or break an election.
Kogan examined pothole complaints on San Diego streets six months before the re-election bids of former Mayor Jerry Sanders, former Councilman Tony Young and then-Councilman Kevin Faulconer. (He got the data from our reporting on the issue.) Potholes did affect their vote totals, but all three won their re-election bids handily. Indeed, no incumbent mayor or city councilman has lost an election in the city of San Diego since 1991.
Sanders, Young and Faulconer’s re-elections also came at a time when San Diego road conditions were rapidly degrading.
“It’s still very hard to unseat an incumbent,” Kogan said. “It’s just a little easier when city streets are bad.”
San Diego politicians seem to know potholes matter. Former Councilman Carl DeMaio set up a photo-up to fill a pothole himself when he ran for mayor in 2012. In the same campaign, District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis joked about falling into one. A few years later, a PAC supporting Councilwoman Lorie Zapf called her “the worst enemy of the San Diego pothole” in a campaign ad that featured a warthog, for some reason.