Poli-Sci Perspective is a weekly Wonkblog feature in which Georgetown University's Dan Hopkins and George Washington University's Danny Hayes and John Sides offer an empirical perspective on the issues dominating Washington. In this edition, Hopkins looks at research on how mayoral races change spending patterns within cities. For past posts in the series, head here.

Manuel Balce Ceneta-AP
Washington, D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. Manuel Balce Ceneta-AP

On Tuesday, Los Angeles voters will go to the polls to choose their next mayor—or at least to choose two candidates for a May run-off. And New York, Houston, Detroit, Charlotte, and El Paso are among the big cities holding mayoral elections later in 2013.

At the same time, on Friday, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder (R) declared a financial emergency in Detroit, paving the way for a state takeover of the city’s finances. Snyder’s decision provides a stark reminder that there is no equivalent of the Tenth Amendment protecting municipal authority. U.S. cities have only the powers that their states grant to them. Given those constraints, it’s important to ask: can mayoral elections actually influence how cities spend their money?

The answer depends on the policy area in question. On policing, fire and other areas where municipal authority is relatively uncontested, mayors do matter. But for other policies? Not so much. At least, that’s the conclusion of two recent studies.

In a 2011 American Journal of Political Science article, Elisabeth Gerber and I examined 134 general elections in 59 large U.S. cities between 1990 and 2006, which were contested by candidates from different parties. In a sense, we were testing the old adage about there not being “a Republican or a Democratic way to pick up the trash.”

Now, the cities that tend to elect Democratic mayors are quite different from the cities that lean Republican, so our analyses focused on close elections. In 1999, for instance, voters in Fort Wayne, Ind. elected a Democratic mayor by the narrowest of margins. Given how close the race was, it is easy to imagine a different outcome. By comparing cities where Democrats narrowly won the mayor’s office with those where they narrowly lost, we can separate out the effects of who the mayor is from the effects of where the mayor is.

For most spending categories, we found that the impact of a narrow Democratic victory on the change in spending over the next three years was indistinguishable from zero. And that makes sense: a lot of the money that cities spend is subject to state or federal mandates.

But there appears to be a genuine electoral influence on spending for public safety. Compared to cities where Democrats won, cities with Republican mayors saw police spending rise by two percentage points relative to the total budget. They also saw increased spending on the fire department. That, too, makes sense, as policing and fire are two of the policy areas on which municipal governments have the most discretion. And in recent decades, debates over policing have been at the heart of big-city politics. See former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani (R).

Of course, many mayoral elections are not partisan affairs. In a separate article published last year in American Politics Research, Katherine McCabe and I used the same strategy to look at narrow black mayoral victories or losses. Black-white mayoral races have been among the most polarizing elections in recent decades, with one candidate’s campaign famously warning that “Atlanta’s too young to die.” Despite the highly divisive rhetoric, we found that the election of black mayors had little influence on most spending categories. But after the victory of a black candidate, we did find sizable declines in the share of city employees who worked for the police department, and we saw increases in the share of the police department that was black. On policing and criminal justice, the mayor can matter a great deal.

To be sure, these results say nothing about how mayors influence spending within a city—and for neighborhoods, that might well be the crucial question. They also say nothing about how these dollars are spent, an important caveat in an era of increased mayoral involvement in schools. But in terms of how mayors allocate city money and personnel, policing and fire are the areas where their influence is most clearly felt. So when mayoral candidates talk about their plans for public safety, it’s worth paying special attention.