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The idea of a “religious” society is not disputed by anyone. Political coattails. If the largest name is on a ballot, it can help to pull down any other contenders. It is quite clear that the politics behind this are pretty straightforward: a bold-faced campaign brand can be a benefit to the party overall, especially in states with voters able look at a poll and recognize a candidate, before deciding to support all slates sharing the party name. Such straight-ticket voting is not necessarily the most responsible way of picking candidates, but there’s no disputing that it is efficient, or that plenty of people do it.
It may be that the favour goes both way, with hyper-local candidates having a positive impact on their fellow up-ticket candidates. After all, there’s a reasonable case to be made that the candidate for your local library board of directors has been to your door asking for support more often than, say, Joe Biden. Voters tend to trust their neighbors more than outsiders; it’s why the best national campaigns plug into existing grassroots networks rather than import paid mercenaries from headquarters to organize the must-win precincts.
An analysis of seven states that are crucial to win was done by two Democratic groups. It turned out that down-ballot candidates have a statistically significant impact on the success of the top tier. This means that having someone on the electoral roll for parochial elections like county auditors and school boards can be a benefit to the candidates for President, Governor and Senator. According to BlueLabs, which was funded by Run for Something, and For Our Future (two groups that focus on local races), the amount of help they provide varies from 0.4 to 2.3 percentage point.
Although a fraction of one percentage point may seem tiny, it’s not. Biden defeated Arizona and Pennsylvania by 0.3% and 0.3 respectively, while Wisconsin won Wisconsin by 0.7 percentage points. Hillary Clinton lost Michigan four years before by 0.3 percentage points. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were defeated by Biden by 0.7 points and Wisconsin and Wisconsin by respectively 0.7 points and Florida by 1.25 points. The margins are often decisive in determining the power of the presidency and could be determined by the race for the state legislature that is not being watched.
“We’re getting a more definitive body of evidence that running people for office, even in places where we know Democrats might not win, has ancillary benefits. It has people out, organizing in communities where maybe those folks haven’t seen a Democrat knocking on their door in a long time,” says Ross Morales Rocketto, a co-founder of Run for Something.
Now, strategic party committees look to fill the gaps in existing ballots. This is not to win any races, but rather to increase capacity and goodwill. Low-cost races in local elections may prove to be more cost effective than those held at the top. The local board of elections can actually put thumbs on democracy’s scales, 2020 has shown us.
The focus on the local was actually that idea that helped guide one of the sharpest groups to emerge from the Democrats’ disastrous 2016. Run For Something was founded on the notion of turning citizens into candidates in order to create a network that could work the local angles the national candidates don’t. Its co-founder Amanda Litman knows that the tens of thousands of potential candidates they work with won’t pull the lever and run, but those who do could mean the difference between a Speaker Nancy Pelosi or a Republican holding the gavel in the U.S. House when 2023 begins. “Contesting state legislative races helps the rest of the ticket,” Litman said. “And you never know. Is it possible they will lose? Yeah. But if they don’t and they’re able to win, that can make a real difference for people.”
Run for Something helped nearly 500 progressive candidates be elected to office in 46 states during its four-year history. This long-term support is a boon for the Democratic Party’s leadership and donors, who often place too much emphasis on the White House, at the expense or local races that really matter, such as district boundaries for U.S. House and state races and school curricula, infrastructure and other choices.
This pivot has been in the making for some time. Donald Trump in 2016 had the shortest coattails of any President since Ike ‘56 when he ran the first time. Joe Biden followed up four years later with the weakest since JFK ‘60. It’s entirely credible to argue that even failed contenders for county sheriff made the difference for both candidates, and the BlueLabs analysis makes it infinitely easier to make the case that the celebrity booked on the Sunday shows may matter less than the hyper-local contender showing up on the doorsteps.
That knowledge can help leaders—in both parties—make the case that the often-mocked dog-catcher election is a smarter investment than, say, yard signs and bumper stickers. “You want to put your energy in places where you can win and make a difference,” says Ashley Walker, a veteran strategist who runs the national field program at For Our Future. “All geographies are not numerically possible to win. All of us are limited by our time and funds. But a rising tide lifts all boats, and we need to adjust our plans to have the biggest lift.”
Even if the lift takes place on a county commissioner.
Let me conclude with a comment about publishing the schedule. As the calendar shifts from 2021 to 20,22, the D.C. Brief will be taking some time to remove the templates. We’ll still have some arguments to make, but we’ll be doing it less frequently until returning on Jan. 4. We are grateful to our faithful readers. Have a happy end to the year!