Democrats have lost ground to Republicans and independents in the last two mayoral election cycles in Indiana.
Overall, Democrats have decreased their share of mayoralties from 57 percent in 2003 and 2007 to roughly 45 percent in 2011 and 2015, according to a new report from the Center for Local Elections in American Politics (LEAP), part of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research.
"Mayoral Elections in Indiana 2003-2015" examines a host of indicators regarding mayoral elections in the Hoosier State. The report analyzed mayoral races in 474 general elections and 706 primary elections in more than 120 Indiana cities.
In addition to the partisan shift, the report also found that more than 20 percent of all mayoral elections in Indiana go uncontested. This issue is especially acute in the state's smallest cities. For example, in cities with less than 5,000 residents, nearly 29 percent of mayoral elections were uncontested, compared with 13 percent in the state's largest cities.
Melissa Marschall, director of the Center for Local Elections in American Politics and a professor of political science at Rice, said because the vast majority of mayoral elections in the U.S. are nonpartisan, Indiana provides a rare opportunity to study partisan dynamics and trends at the local level.
“The old adage that ‘There is no Republican or Democratic way to pick up the garbage’ rings true to many Americans,” Marschall said. “Concerns about potholes and snow removal may be top priorities for local residents, but in fact, we know very little about how partisanship, party cues or larger political forces in state and national politics shape local politics and elections.”
Marschall raised several questions to demonstrate that point: “Was the partisan shift in Indiana’s mayoralties in 2011 a reaction to Democrats winning the White House in 2008? A response to federal policy? Or was it driven primarily by local factors? We can learn a lot about both national and local politics by studying Indiana’s mayoral elections.”
John Lappie, postdoctoral research fellow at LEAP, elaborated: “An interesting finding from Indiana is the fact that cities do not tend to be overwhelmingly red or blue, but instead, more purple in nature. More than 60 percent of Indiana cities elected both Democratic and Republic mayors between 2003 and 2015; only 29 elected all Democrats and even fewer (18) elected all Republicans.”
The report also found that:
- Republican candidates tended to do best in midsized cities (10,000-20,000 residents) and worst in larger (more than 50,000 residents) and smaller cities (5,000-10,000 residents).
- There was a gradual but steady decline in turnout in mayoral elections during the 2003-2015 study period. In that time, turnout in November general elections dropped from an average of 29 percent in 2003 to 22 percent in 2015; primary turnout declined from 20 percent in 2003 to 14 percent in 2015.
- In Indiana, the relationship between median household income and turnout runs contrary to expectations. Typically, election turnout increases as median income within communities increases. In Indiana, turnout is roughly 26 percent across all income categories.
The data for the report is based on election results from the Indiana Secretary of State website. Indiana holds general municipal elections in November of odd years and primaries in May of odd years. Mayors serve four-year terms.
The Indiana study is the third of several reports on municipal elections to be released in 2016 by the Kinder Institute’s Center for Local Elections in American Politics. Forthcoming reports will examine trends in municipal contests in Virginia, Louisiana, Minnesota, South Carolina, North Carolina and Washington.
The research is supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.