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The Professor Will See You Now: Potholes

4 min read

In an occasional series, Professor Philip Cowley offers a political science lesson for The House’s readers. This week: potholes

The school run takes less than 10 minutes. In that time, we pass at least four potholes with the potential to take out a tyre; one is so deep it must be halfway to Australia. In the dark, with other drivers swerving wildly as they spot them at the last minute, the journey is suitable only for a hardened thrill seeker. Data published by the Department of Transport shows that the roads of rural East Sussex are far from the worst in the country, so this experience may be a familiar one to many readers. 

Were it not for the need to focus with a laser-like intensity on the road ahead, my mind would drift to some research, published a few years ago, on the politics of potholes. Based on elections in San Diego, it found a link between the state of the roads in parts of the city and electoral support for the incumbent politician. 

San Diego was a good city to choose because the roads there had not – contra Ron Burgundy – stayed classy. Voters had noticed that America’s self-proclaimed finest city had some of the country’s worst roads, and the issue ranked highly among the things they cared about.

The researchers got hold of a database of 52,000 complaints about the city’s roads. They found that places with more potholes were less likely to vote for the incumbent, even once you controlled for previous levels of electoral support. Each pothole complaint lowered an incumbent’s vote share by 0.2 percentage points. (Applied directly in Sussex, an effect of this size would likely result in some politicians polling less than zero). 

The main reason for liking the article is not just that you must respect any research where one of the independent variables is “Pothole Complaints”, but rather that it is a clear example of what political scientists call retrospective voting. That is, that elections can be as much or more a judgment on the record of incumbents, rather than being prospective, about what politicians say they will do. There’s lots of evidence from the UK and elsewhere that retrospective voting is tremendously important, far more so than much media coverage of elections implies. 

This is perfectly understandable. For voters who don’t pay much attention to politics – that is, most of them – retrospective voting is lower cost. It does not require an analysis of a party’s promises and pledges; people just need to focus on what life has been like over the last few years. Are the roads dangerous? Are they getting better or worse? These are easier questions to answer than worrying about a party’s manifesto. Besides, anyone can promise something; your record is harder to dodge.  

In reality, the causal relationships are often more complicated. Maybe you’re better off (or not) because the global economy has picked up (or not), rather than because of anything the government has done. But then politicians are happy to take the credit for things beyond their control, so they can’t really complain when they get the downside. 

This is another reason why the potholes paper is so neat. In San Diego responsibility for the state of the roads was entirely the city’s. Voters knew who to blame. The lines of accountability for roads in the UK aren’t as clear. Different bodies maintain different roads.

Even if it’s a local authority-maintained road, they operate under a funding regime where they are not entirely free to raise and spend at will. This is, I suspect, why similar attempts in the UK to test whether poorly performing councils get punished at the polls often fail to determine any similar effect. It may also be why my suspension needs fixing. 

Further reading: C Burnett and V Kogan, The Politics of Potholes: Service Quality and Retrospective Voting in Local Elections, The Journal of Politics (2016)

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