Welcome back to the weekly Nuts & Bolts Guide to small campaigns. Every week I try to tackle issues I’ve been asked about. With the help of other campaign workers and notes, we address how to improve and build better campaigns, or explain issues that impact our party.
For a very long time, the general idea of a good candidate was easy to sum up: older white male with money and a career that gave them the ability to take off of work for large periods of time to campaign, run, and serve. This formula was—and unfortunately often still is—so well accepted that statehouses and local offices are overwhelmingly filled with white men. While white men represent roughly 30% of the U.S. population, they represent 62% of the elected officials. Some representation statistics are truly scary in the ability to control an office: 92% of Sheriffs in the United States are white men. We have a problem with representation. A big part of that is the problem of how we recruit candidates and the assumptions we make when we recruit candidates. This week, let’s talk about how successful campaigns can change what it means to be a good candidate.
Some of the old ideas in a campaign are just, well, wrong
One of the unspoken ideas in political campaigns came from the idea that well-off white men would bring in lots of campaign cash and have significant support, as well as more time to campaign. This assumption led to decades of chasing doctors, attorneys, and businessmen to run for office. It also led to the problem of representation, linked above. Campaign workers, including myself, see something very different. While wealthy white males have an inside track, it isn’t enough of an inside track to be the only way to raise funds or provide you with a great candidate. Research is now showing how wrong and dangerous this assumption is for the process.
In academic research published at the University of Washington, researchers evaluated the ability of candidates who don’t fit into that rich white male bucket to raise funds in a campaign.
Grumbach said also wondered if candidates of color underwent “backlash,” or white voters either giving less to them or actually turning to donate to their opponent.
“We ended up finding a bit of decrease in money from white donors to minority candidates, but it’s more than made up for by increased minority contributions. And, opponents don’t raise any additional money when running against minority candidates.
“Overall, minority candidates — especially Democrats — are at least as competitive in fundraising as white candidates. This should assuage fears that running more minority candidates would hurt fundraising.”
The assumption that you need a white male candidate has always been a way to throw up your hands and say, “Well, this is what it takes to win,” while ignoring the inherit racism and misogyny of not looking for strong candidates who should serve based on their merits. Weeding out candidates or deciding their likelihood of success from the beginning based on their ethnicity and wealth is discriminatory, and the Democratic donor base knows it—and as confirmed in a study, their donations are driven by a belief in not holding onto the problems of the past.
Diversity is desperately needed—and possible
In some areas, the fact that there is no diversity is desperate and tells us something is really, really wrong with the system right now. The Reflective Democracy campaign looks at all areas of government, but when I want to show others how problematic the situation truly is, there is no office in America that has a bigger problem with diversity than law enforcement.
In all of these states, effective campaigns could and should be run by candidates who represent the communities. The problem charts like this show us is not just about who gets voted into office, it’s also about who receives support and who is recruited to run for office. While nationally most of these offices are nonpartisan, the people who run in these races do not leave their partisan ideals at the door. Candidates are still recruited or asked to run especially in high-profile positions and receive support from people who have known them from their party ties for years. We love to talk about the Democratic Party and successes, but when it comes to looking at local races, chart after chart will tell you we are simply not doing enough to recruit and support good candidates beyond old white men. That trend must stop.
Encouragement is key
Forget some of the old ideas about what makes a great candidate. Instead, think about what makes a great community and look for candidates who care about their community. Get behind them and show those candidates you support their campaign. Around the country, more young candidates are appearing and asking for support. We can and need to ensure we give it. From The Nation:
On April 6, Harris and his friend Fran Wilson launched Primary Ohio, a political action committee dedicated to supporting young, marginalized, progressive candidates for local and state office. In doing so, they joined a network of organizations providing wraparound supports—training and mentorship, fundraising and staffing assistance, media coverage, and more—to young people running for elected office.
At every level of government, the average politician is older than the average American. The average mayor is 56, the average governor 58, and the median school board member 59. Meanwhile, the median American is just 38.
Supporting young, diverse candidates is a way to groom and build up candidates for the future. Supporting them is important in building an inclusive party and it is easy to do, whether it’s a small number of funds to support them, doing some volunteer work on their behalf, or recruiting that young college graduate you know to run for public office.
States with large Democratic populations and representation in local offices that are all white men: I’m looking at you. Start encouraging and making an effort to lead the way in change.
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