Rachael McLellan

Postgraduate Research Associate, Princeton University


About Me

I am a Postgraduate Research Associate in the Politics Department at Princeton University where I got my PhD in January 2020. From September, I will be a Fellow in Political Science & Public Policy in the School of Public Policy at the London School of Economics. I study the strategies of electoral autocrats and opposition parties at the local level. My dissertation asks how local control - who wins local elections - affects how ruling and opposition parties compete for votes. I use administrative data, interviews, focus groups and surveys to understand how opposition control of local institutions changes patterns of distribution and repression and threatens regime durability in decentralized autocracies. I won the American Political Science Association Fieldwork Prize in 2019 for my dissertation work on Tanzania. My work has been accepted at Perspectives on Politics. 


Ongoing Projects


Dissertation Project: The Politics of Local Control in Electoral Autocracies  

My dissertation examines whether local state capacity empowers or constrains electoral autocrats and opposition parties as they compete for votes. I argue that local state capacity is a double-edged sword for autocrats. Creating local capacity allows incumbents to increase their reach. However, opposition parties can win elections for these local offices. I contend that ‘local control’ – who wins local elections – determines how incumbents and opposition parties compete for votes. If opposition parties win these elections, incumbents become constrained in how they can manage political competition and opposition parties gain new strategies they can use to win over voters. I show that this allows opposition parties to build stable bases of support and emerge as a real threat to the incumbent. However, loss of local control may lead to autocrats relying more on violent and legalistic strategies to suppress oppositions. By both pathways, local capacity under opposition control weakens and destabilizes an incumbent’s hold on power. This challenges the prevailing functionalist consensus that authoritarian institutions and state capacity necessarily strengthen authoritarian regimes.

Local Control: How Opposition Support Constrains Electoral Autocrats

Studies of distributive politics conceptualize incumbents as central planners allocating resources, constrained in how much they can distribute but not where. Electoral autocrats often use punishment regimes to sanction disloyalty.  In many non-democracies, local institutions are the infrastructure of reward and sanction, a legacy of widespread decentralization in the 80s and 90s. I show that incumbents face subnational constraints on their ability to enforce ‘punishment regimes’. Using interviews and list experiments in Tanzania, I demonstrate that local control  -- who controls local institutions in a subnational unit  -- determines the incumbent’s ability to monitor and sanction opposition support. Respondents in opposition communities fear individual sanctions less. Respondents in opposition local governments fear community sanctions less. By making it harder to impose costs on opposition support, loss of local control makes it harder for incumbents to manage competition.

The Politics of Data in Authoritarian Regimes (with Ruth Carlitz)

Data availability has long been a challenge for scholars of authoritarian politics. However, the promotion of open government data has motivated many of the world's more closed regimes to produce and publish fine-grained data on public goods provision, taxation, and more. While this has been a boon to scholars of autocracies, we argue that the politics of data production and dissemination in these countries creates new challenges. These include threats to inference and ethical concerns. Systematically missing or biased data and selective restrictions on data collection may jeopardize research quality and lead scholars to simply parrot the ``party line'' in data form. We provide evidence of these risks from Tanzania, comparing data released to the public with verified internal figures. We also present an overview of methods for identifying manipulation. In so doing, we demonstrate that caution must be exercised when conducting research using such data. We conclude by proposing ways that scholars can minimize these risks.

The Soil of Politics: Land Resources in Political Competition (with Sondre Solstad)

Ethnic groups are the building blocks of political coalitions. Control of resources matter in politics, and fertile land is an important resource. We combine these three insights to argue that an ethnic groups' control of fertile land --- which we call "soil power" --- shape their bargaining power in politics, and national political outcomes. We use satellite, climate, and soil data to calculate the cumulative agricultural potential of all ethnic homelands in several well-known datasets. We demonstrate that soil power predicts groups' national power and its risk of discrimination, beyond that explained by population shares. Using ethnic homelands in Sub-Saharan Africa from 1900, we find that the distribution of soil power within countries at this time predicted their later political development. 



POL 230: Introduction to Comparative Politics

Intro level CP course. Course topics include the relationship between capitalism, democracy, and economic development; the implications of institutional choices (such as electoral systems); the politics of ethnic diversity and conflict; and the dynamics of political mobilization.

Preceptor for Grigore Pop-Eleches
Spring 2018

POL 346: Applied Quantitative Analysis

Second class in the undergraduate Politics and Sociology statistics sequence. The course covers causal inference and the theory and implementation of various models (OLS, logit, fixed effects, RDD, IV) in R.  For this class, I won the George Kateb Award for Best Preceptor for 2017.

Preceptor for Omar Wasow
Spring 2017

POL 347: Mathematical Models in the Study of Politics

Advanced introduction to formal models for Politics and Political Economy majors. Applications covered include strategic voting, bargaining, lobbying, strategic information transmission, and political agency

Preceptor for Matias Iaryczower
Fall 2016


300 Fisher Hall,
Princeton, NJ 08544


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