Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science


Margarita Estevez-Abe


Childcare, Party Competition, South Korea, Swing Districts


This dissertation argues that public childcare in majoritarian countries develops as a result of electoral competition over swing district voters. Public childcare is a social policy area that has garnered much academic and political attention in recent years in many advanced industrial countries. The dissertation focuses on the South Korean case for two reasons: 1) the Korean experience challenges the existing academic consensus and reveals the shortcomings of the existing literature, and 2) the Korean case allows me to bridge the study on public opinion and institutions. South Korea dramatically expanded its public childcare between 2009 and 2013, growing childcare spending from less than 0.4 percent of its GDP in 2008 to nearly one percent in 2013. It is now one of the OECD's heaviest spenders on public childcare. However, the existing welfare state literature fails to explain the Korean case. The literature argues that public childcare expands when the majority of voters develop favorable preferences. In Korea, however, a dramatic expansion of public childcare has taken place along with preference changes. Existing theories cannot explain the Korean case because existing studies have never adequately theorized the role of electoral institutions. Most theories of childcare policies have been developed based on the European experience—most of which use proportional representation systems—and assume that electoral systems were unimportant in the causal story.

In majoritarian systems, preference shifts in the pivotal competitive districts can change the electoral outcome. Political parties and candidates are well aware of this and seek good policy issues to mobilize more voters in competitive districts. As a consequence, I argue, a policy issue that is very popular in swing districts can become a major campaign promise and, eventually, a policy. Furthermore, the case study of Korean childcare politics enables me to reexamine the relationship between voter preferences and public policies. The existing literature (primarily based on the European experience) indicates that a social change (women’s left-wing shift) is the driver of childcare policies (mediated by party competition over female votes). However, the dissertation shows that voters’ preferences changes are not necessarily the beginning of the process. The Korean case provides a more nuanced picture of the interaction between politicians’ strategic calculation and public opinion change. The dissertation demonstrates that voters’ preferences changed only after some progressive politicians running for local offices in important swing districts successfully framed the issue in a way that resonated with voters. To reiterate, winning in swing districts is critical in majoritarian systems and gives voters in those districts an oversized influence over policy outcomes. Such a dynamic is absent in proportional representation systems.

The dissertation substantiates its argument by employing a multi-methods analysis. I spent seven months conducting fieldwork in South Korea, collecting data from archives–-libraries in National Assembly, National Election Commission, and Statistics Korea–-and interviewing key decision-makers–-members of the National Assembly, party officials, academics, and government officials. I constructed three original data sets of large text corpora. I collected them from the internet using a program I built: one is of the press releases of the two major political parties, the second is of specific entries of interest from five major newspapers, and the last is of individual candidates' manifesto pamphlets. Lastly, I analyze existing cross-sectional and panel surveys.


Open Access

Available for download on Thursday, June 12, 2025