Want to Win the White House? Recruit a Candidate for School Board

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No one really disputes the concept of political coattails. The biggest name on a ballot has some dragging fabric that can pull down-ballot contenders across the finish line. The political science on this is fairly undisputed: the bold-faced brand with deep pockets behind the campaign can help the party as a whole, especially in states where voters can look at a ballot, spot a name they recognize and decide to support the entire slate that shares the party label. 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.

Well, it may turn out the favor goes both ways, and hyper-local candidates can have a positive spill-over on their colleagues up-ticket. 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.

In an analysis of seven must-win states from two Democratic groups that emerged from the ashes of 2016, it turns out that fielding down-ballot races has a statistically significant effect on boosting the headliners. In other words, having someone on the ballot for the parochial races like school boards and county auditors can actually help the contenders for Governor, Senator and even President. How much help they offer varies, from 0.4 percentage points to 2.3 percentage points, according to the BlueLabs analysis funded by Run for Something and For Our Future, two groups focused on local races.

A fraction of a percentage point might seem small, and it is. But Biden won Pennsylvania and Georgia by 0.2 points, Arizona by 0.3 points, and Wisconsin by 0.7 points. Four years earlier, Hillary Clinton lost Michigan by 0.3 percentage points, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by 0.7 points, and Florida by 1.2 points. The power of the presidency is regularly decided on the margins and may well hinge on that state assembly race that no one is paying attention to.

“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.

Strategic party committees are now starting to look at filling the gaps on existing ballots, not necessarily to win the races but to build capacity, goodwill and potential. The low-cost local races may actually be a better investment for parties than the marquee races. And, as 2020 showed us, the local boards of election actually can put thumbs on the scales of democracy when shame is left at the door.

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 is based on the idea of converting citizens into candidates to build a pipeline that can work the local angles that national candidates are missing. 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. Probably are they going to lose? Yeah. But if they don’t and they’re able to win, that can make a real difference for people.”

In its first four years, Run for Something has helped get almost 500 progressive candidates elected in 46 states. And that carries with it long-term help for a Democratic Party, whose leadership and donors often focus far too much on the White House at the expense of local races where so much is actually decided, like district borders for state and U.S. House races, school curricula and infrastructure choices.

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There have been hints of this pivot unfolding behind the scenes 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. We are all limited by funds and 24 hours in a day. But a rising tide lifts all boats, and we need to adjust our plans to have the biggest lift.”

Even if that lift is happening on a county commission.

Finally, a note on our publishing the schedule: The D.C. Brief is going to take some time away from the templates as the calendar moves from 2021 to 2022. We’ll still have some arguments to make, but we’ll be doing it less frequently until returning on Jan. 4. Thanks to all of our loyal readers, and have a joyous end of the year.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com