It's not exactly shocking to discover that a city dominated by policy debates over taxing sodas, public nudity, and gentrification tilts a teensy bit left-of-center. But two political scientists have given empirical teeth to the notion of "San Francisco values." Surprise, surprise: They found that San Francisco has the most liberal population of any major city in the United States.
The results, which are being discussed on The New Republic, Vox, and The Economist, come from a paper by Chris Warshaw and Chris Tausanovitch, professors of political science at MIT and UCLA, respectively, and published in the American Political Science Review, the leading journal in the field. Using data on political ideology collected in seven large-scale opinion surveys conducted from 2000 to 2011 and covering more than 275,000 people, they found that San Francisco is home to the most left-wing median voter. We're followed by Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Oakland. Los Angeles was the eighteenth most-liberal city, with San Diego, Sacramento, and San Jose all slightly more conservative than it. Looking for a city that dead in the middle of the spectrum? Try Riverside, Fresno, or Anaheim.
More interesting than just the ranking of policy inputs of voters were the findings on policy outputs by elected officials. Notwithstanding how voters feel about individual elected officials, in general, the more liberal and city was, the more liberal its policies were, and vice-versa. Civic governments—San Francisco's not excluded—are responsive to voters' ideological preferences. (Because the authors of the paper looked at data on taxation and spending—which are easy to compare across cities—their work doesn't rule in or out the possibility of a policy disconnect between voters and officials on social issues or development.) According to Warshaw, the idea that “idiosyncratic local political battles, about zoning, land, growth, and fixing potholes, [are] the core of city politics is not quite wrong; it’s just that the battles over such things also occur within the same ideological spectrum that applies to state and federal politics."
Strikingly, given San Francisco's history of civic convulsions around district versus citywide elections, the scientists found no evidence of institutional rule-changes making a difference in the policy representation of voter preferences. In other words, there's no indication across the 1,600 cities that the precise form of government matters.
It's easy to lose sight of it when you focus down on local conflicts over Airbnb or the waterfront, but when you step back a little, San Francisco is about as far left as you can get in American politics. And the evidence suggests that we like it that way.