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Do Political Parties Matter?

That’s the question asked by the Wharton economists Fernando Ferreira and Joseph Gyourko. But they are not talking about national political parties. In that realm, party affiliation has indeed been shown to have a strong effect on legislation and policy. No, Ferreira and Gyourko are interested in whether party affiliation matters on the local level — and their answer, essentially, is no. Using data from more than 4,500 U.S. mayoral elections between 1950 and 2005 in more than 400 cities with populations of at least 25,000, here is what they learned:

[W]e find that party labels do not affect the size of government, the allocation of spending or crime rates, even though there is a large political advantage to incumbency in terms of the probability of winning the next election … In particular, there is a relatively high degree of household homogeneity at the local level that appears to provide the proper incentives for local politicians to be able to credibly commit to moderation and discourages strategic extremism.

While few people would accuse Rudy Giuliani of having “commit[ted] to moderation” or avoiding “strategic extremism” when he was mayor of New York City, the fact remains that he was the rare Republican elected by an extraordinarily Democratic town, and he was generally well regarded until close to the end of his second term. By then, it was mainly his temperament and personal affairs that had turned off many swing voters.

It is true that the mayor of New York City has a larger budget and set of responsibilities than the governors of some states; still, he is the lone mayor running in this year’s presidential election, and is leading the way at that. It will be interesting to see if and how Giuliani, running against a pack of men and a woman who have long been faithful to their national party, assumes the true stripes of his Republican affiliation.