Book Project

Executive Politics: Business Executives as Politicians

In progress, this book examines business owners and executives who serve as mayor in American cities, considering why they run for office, why voters elect them, and how they shape public policy.


Business Owners and Executives as Politicians: The Effect on Public Policy, Journal of Politics.  Forthcoming.

When business owners and executives run for elected office, they claim their experience in business leaves them uniquely equipped to govern. Does electing a business owner or executive have an effect on public policy? With original data, including race, gender, political experience, and occupational backgrounds of 3,257 mayoral candidates from 263 cities, I document a striking lack of diversity in U.S. mayoral politics and show that business owners and executives are extraordinarily well represented in American city halls. Nearly 32% of mayors have experience as a business owner or executive, making it the most common occupation across both time and geographic region. Using a regression discontinuity design, I find that business executive mayors do shape municipal fiscal policy by shifting the allocation of expenditures, investing in infrastructure while curtailing redistributive spending. Notably, my results suggest that business executive is not simply a proxy for Republican partisanship.

A Regression Discontinuity Design for Studying Divided Government, with Justin Phillips. 2020. State Politics and Policy Quarterly. Forthcoming.

The regression discontinuity design (RDD) is a valuable tool for identifying causal effects with observational data. However, applying the traditional electoral RDD to the study of divided government is challenging. Because assignment to treatment in this case is the result of elections to multiple institutions, there is no obvious single forcing variable. Here we use simulations in which we apply shocks to real-world election results in order to generate two measures of the likelihood of divided government, both of which can be used for causal analysis. The first captures the electoral distance to divided government and can easily be utilized in conjunction with the standard sharp RDD toolkit. The second is a simulated probability of divided government. This measure does not easily fit into a sharp RDD framework, so we develop a probability restricted design (PRD) which relies upon the underlying logic of an RDD. This design incorporates common regression techniques but limits the sample to to those observations for which assignment to treatment approaches “as-if random.” To illustrate both of our approaches, we reevaluate the link between divided government and the size of budget deficits.

Mayoral Candidates, Social Class, and Representation in American Cities. 2020. Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy 1(1): 105-136. (Invited submission)

2021 Kenneth A. Shepsle Prize, awarded for the best article in the Journal of Political Institutions and Political Economy for the first volume (2020)

Despite advances in descriptive representation, the wealth gap between U.S. elected officials and their constituents continues to grow. I investigate whether and how the overrepresentation of the affluent shapes public policy in American cities. Questions about social class and inequality seem especially pressing at the local level for two key reasons. First, the public depends on municipal government for essential services that affect their health and safety. Second, poor and working-class residents likely have fewer resources to “vote with their feet” by leaving cities with subpar services or regressive taxes, fees, and fines. Drawing on an original dataset that includes gender, race, occupational background, and political experience for 3,257 mayoral candidates from 259 cities over 60 years, I provide a comprehensive account of who runs for office and who serves in city government. Overall, mayors tend to be overwhelmingly white and male with white-collar careers and prior political experience. Across cities and over time, only about 4% of mayoral candidates in my sample come from the working class. Combining candidate profiles with municipal public finance data, I use a regression discontinuity design (RDD) to investigate the effect of the underrepresentation of the working class on local fiscal policy and find that narrowly electing an affluent mayor has little, if any, impact on local fiscal policy.

Is Divided Government a Cause of Legislative Delay? with Justin Phillips.  2018. Quarterly Journal of Political Science 13(2): 173-206.

Despite the compelling theoretical prediction that divided government decreases legislative performance, the empirical literature has struggled to identify a causal effect. We suspect that a combination of methodological challenges and data limitations are to blame. Here, we revisit this empirical relationship. Rather than relying on traditional measures of legislative productivity, however, we consider whether divided government affects the ability of lawmakers to meet critical deadlines—specifically, the ability of state lawmakers to adopt an on-time budget (as mandated by state law). By focusing on delay instead of productivity we avoid measurement problems, particularly the challenges inherent in measuring the supply of and demand for legislation. To assess the causal effect of divided government, we develop and implement a regression discontinuity design (RDD) that accounts for the multiple elections that produce unified or divided government in separation-of-powers systems. Our RDD approach yields compelling evidence that divided government is a cause of delay. We also evaluate and find support for a new hypothesis that divided government is more likely to lead to lead to delay when the personal and political costs that stalemate imposes on politicians are low.

Candidate Choice without Party Labels: New Insights from Conjoint Survey Experiments with Alexander Coppock.  2018.  Political Behavior 40(3):571-591.

In the absence of party labels, voters must use other information to determine whom to support. The institution of nonpartisan elections, therefore, may impact voter choice by increasing the weight that voters place on candidate dimensions other than partisanship. We hypothesize that in nonpartisan elections, voters will exhibit a stronger preference for candidates with greater career and political experience, as well as candidates who can successfully signal partisan or ideological affiliation without directly using labels. To test these hypotheses, we conducted conjoint survey experiments on both nationally representative and convenience samples that vary the presence or absence of partisan information. The primary result of these experiments indicates that when voters cannot rely on party labels, they give greater weight to candidate experience. We find that this process unfolds differently for respondents of different partisan affiliations: Republicans respond to the removal of partisan information by giving greater weight to job experience while Democrats respond by giving greater weight to political experience. Our results lend microfoundational support to the notion that partisan information can crowd out other kinds of candidate information.

Appendix: Candidate Choice without Party Labels: New Insights from Conjoint Survey Experiments

Working Papers

Representation in American Cities: Who Runs for Mayor and Who Wins? (Conditionally accepted, Urban Affairs Review)

Despite advances in descriptive representation, U.S. politicians are still overwhelmingly white and male, and the wealth gap between elected officials and their constituents continues to grow.  These circumstances are especially concerning in light of considerable evidence supporting a link between descriptive and substantive representation.  In this paper, I examine descriptive representation in U.S. cities. Drawing on an original dataset that includes gender, race, occupational background, and political experience for more than 3,000 mayoral candidates, I provide a comprehensive account of who runs for mayor and who serves. Covering 248 cities and more than 50 years, these data indicate that like politicians at higher levels of government, mayors tend to be white and male with prior political experience and white-collar careers. Business owners and executives are especially well represented, accounting for about 32% of the candidates in the sample. Despite their numbers, I find little evidence to suggest that business owners and executives win at higher rates than other candidates. However, business owners and executives make up a larger share of mayoral candidates in cities with reform institutions. In particular, candidates in council-manager cities are systematically more likely to have a background as a business owner or executive than candidates from cities with a mayor-council government.

Imposing Deadlines, with Dan Alexander and Justin Phillips

Bargaining between a legislature and an executive before an exogenous deadline is common feature of U.S. policymaking at both state and federal levels, often accompanied by stalemate. An impasse may simply leave an existing policy in place. In some cases, however, the status quo no longer applies, and failure to enact legislation by a pre-established deadline can lead to serious negative consequences. Common examples of critical deadlines involve the need to pass a budget or continuing resolution to forestall a government shutdown, and other cases include legislation to raise the debt ceiling, to avoid budget sequestration, or to reauthorize funding for expiring programs. Questions persist around the rationality of these standoffs. If an agreement must eventually be reached, and if delays are costly, one or both sides ought to be willing to make concessions earlier in the process. We employ a war-of-attrition model, and we validate the assumptions (viz., asymmetric information, audience considerations, and costs from missing a deadline) of this model using novel survey data of state legislative candidates. The model suggests a deadline is neither necessary nor sufficient for compromise to take place. Deadlines nonetheless play a central role in legislative bargaining. Without a deadline–and rather unlike international disputes–stalemate cannot escalate into conflict. The possibility of escalated conflict, in turn, induces legislatures and executives to either strike a deal by the deadline or cast the die and incur the cost of a missed deadline.

Lobbying in Divided and Unified Government, with Sebastian Thieme

Does divided or unified government have an effect on lobbying expenditures by special interests, and does the type of governmental regime – divided government, unified Democratic government, or unified Republican government – affect the lobbying efforts of special interests whose preferences tend to be aligned with one party over another? While some institutional theories and theories of institutions suggest that divided government should increase aggregate lobbying, observational analyses have not always found strong support for such claims. Further, there is mixed evidence on whom lobbyists target or target most. To address these questions, we employ lobbying expenditure data from 29 states and a regression discontinuity design (RDD) that accounts for the multiple elections that produce unified or divided government. Based on our preliminary estimates, we cannot reject the null hypothesis of no causal effect of divided government on overall or corporate lobbying expenditures. While some of the preliminary estimates for labor unions, corporations, and trade groups show a decrease under unified Republican control, the results call for the inclusion of additional data as well as robustness checks ahead of a substantive interpretation of these estimates.

How Important is Legislative Uncertainty? Evidence of Imperfect Information, Learning, and Position-Taking in a State Legislature, with Adam Zelizer and Elizabeth Dorssom

Imperfect information is a central concern for representative legislatures. Legislators are feared to have insufficient information on which to evaluate policy proposals. Yet, there exists little quantitative evidence describing legislators’ uncertainty about policy or their responsiveness to new information. Of previous studies that have shown a persuasive effect of information on legislators’ position-taking, it remains unclear the mechanism by which information influences behavior. This paper presents descriptive and causal results from a survey and experiment that show the scope of legislative uncertainty and the effectiveness of legislative institutions in overcoming it. We find that legislators are broadly uninformed about policy proposals, but that they learn from research provided to them. Further, policy research not only changes their beliefs about legislation, but also their policy positions. Policy positions appear to be determined by legislators’ (imperfect) beliefs about legislation, which explains why policy information can persuade legislators to support or oppose legislation.