Whenever you’re in a voting booth and you’re presented with a bevy of candidates to choose between, you may find yourself asking “How exactly did these people become my options?”
The answer is a lot more complicated than you might think. When it comes to political candidate selection and recruiting political candidates, there’s a far more intricate machine at work behind the scenes – especially as it pertains to the two major political parties in the U.S. Whatever the individual motivation to run for office, both political parties employ methods of gauging potential officeholders, priming them for campaigns, funding aspiring political leaders – with the key objective of maintaining and expanding party power at the center of their efforts.
The process for recruiting grassroots candidates and independent leaders is similarly a complex brew of personality, leadership, community support, and persuasion strategies. Because independent candidates lack the organizational boost and fundraising might of the major political parties, discovering and actually recruiting independent candidates to run for office outside of a party ticket can be a heavily nuanced, case-by-case process.
In both cases, party-backed and independent, running for political office consists of a lot more than simply declaring your candidacy and gathering signatures – a lot more. In this article, we’ll break down the mechanisms for how candidates get recruited to run for public office, both through the two-party system and through the independent track.
First up, let’s take a look at how each political party identifies potential candidates, recruits them into running, and provides them with resources to wage a competitive race.
Lester G. Seligman, former professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois, identified two distinct ‘phases’ that America’s two major political parties use to recruit aspiring political leaders: certification and selection.
Essentially, as Seligman describes, the certification process revolves around party operatives weighing the political efficacy and social popularity of potential candidates: local office holders, community leaders, and so on. Depending on the level of office that is up for election, party leaders will consider different aspects in the certification phase. For instance, certifying a potential candidate for the U.S. Senate will come with a more robust list of prerequisites for meeting their political and social benchmarks than, say, a candidate for city council or state representative. Certification is basically about surveying the political and social landscape for potential figures who could work as candidates.
The selection phase is where the parties actually decide to throw their institutional heft behind their favored candidate in whichever race is getting off the ground. This can take the shape of endorsements, throwing fundraisers, and/or drumming up positive media coverage of their preferred candidates (and negative coverage of their non-preferred candidates as well). Think of certification like dating, and selection as marriage.
Seligman identifies five central characteristics that party elites look out for in the certification process, before a determination can be made as to who the party actually selects to run for office, in rough order of importance:
Readiness for nomination, as demonstrated by long service in party positions at graduated levels of party organization
Strong acceptability to the party's potential electoral support
Loyalty to party organization and leadership
Conformity to organizational code
Representativeness of an ethnic identity, religious affiliation, or geographic area
If a potential candidate fails to meet one or more of these basic criteria, it can become increasingly difficult for them to win over support from the party’s organization and resources. To use an example from the 2016 Democratic primaries, let’s assess the primary candidacies of Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders to get a more intuitive feel for how these characteristics can determine which candidate ends up winning the party’s institutional support for selection, and which one doesn’t.
On the first count – readiness for nomination, as demonstrated by prior service in public office – both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders clear the threshold. Both candidates had won election and re-election to the U.S. Senate, in addition to Hillary serving as Secretary of State and Bernie serving as a Congressman and mayor before that.
Strong acceptability to the party’s potential electoral support? In the early days of the primary, this was Hillary’s characteristic to lose. Having worldwide name recognition – and coming extremely close to winning the 2008 Democratic primary – Hillary was seen by party elites as someone who would be an acceptable and electable candidate by the Democratic party’s electorate.
In contrast, Bernie was seen as a longshot also-ran, an obscure Senator from the small state of Vermont. Barely anyone knew who he was, and when he was portrayed in the media, it tended to revolve around his “grumpy old man” persona. However, when the first votes of the 2016 Iowa caucus were tallied, Bernie ran neck-and-neck with Hillary, only losing the popular vote by a tiny fraction of a percent, essentially tying Hillary. After this dramatic overperformance – and later on in the campaign, winning 23 state primaries – Bernie became seen as a candidate with strong acceptability by the broader Democratic electorate. Ultimately, both candidates cleared this threshold as well.
Point 3, however – party loyalty – is where the two candidates differed the most. Hillary, a former First Lady of a Democratic president for two terms, a twice-elected Democratic Senator and the Secretary of State under President Obama, was seen as perhaps the most fiercely loyal potential candidate that the Democratic Party could possibly nominate. She had spent the vast majority of her public life supporting the party in whichever way she could, and that had a huge influence on the amount of party elders who rushed to endorse and fundraise for her during the primary.
Bernie, on the other hand, was technically an elected Independent, not an official Democrat, despite caucusing with the Democratic Party in the Senate and supporting many of the Democratic party’s legislative initiatives. Bernie ran for Congress and later the U.S. Senate as an independent, but was so popular in the state of Vermont that the Democratic Party didn’t even bother to select an official Democratic candidate to run in the primary or general against him. Because of this, some party officials viewed Bernie through a highly skeptical lens, never knowing for sure if he was a loyal or reliable supporter of the Democratic party. For many party elites, the fact that he declared a primary candidacy challenging Hillary Clinton to begin with demonstrated that he wasn’t loyal to the party’s leadership, which by that point had essentially completely rallied behind and backed Hillary’s candidacy.
The wide divergence in party loyalty also bled into characteristic 4 – conformity to organizational code – and it ultimately reaped huge benefits for Hillary’s ultimate selection by the party, and Bernie’s ultimate failure to win the nomination. Hillary crushed Bernie in terms of institutional Democratic party endorsements, including the all-critical superdelegates that counted towards each candidate’s delegate total. Because Hillary enjoyed much deeper party support than Bernie did, she was able to reap the rewards of her strong party loyalty, and that ended up being the central difference maker between the two.
Of course, this example was from the highest level of public office – a presidential race. But the core principles apply down ballot to every level of public office, just with adjusted standards based on the stakes of each office. A candidate running for mayor, for example, will have different standards applied to them in terms of “readiness for nomination” than someone running for city council, for example.
Now that we’ve seen the general contours for how major political parties screen for, assess, and ultimately recruit candidates into running for office, let’s take a look at the far less standardized process of recruiting non-partisan independent candidates.
The process for recruiting independents is far, far different from the top-down political party process, and it’s different for every candidate and every individual race. From the sheer virtue of being independent and non-party affiliated, there is no standard “one way” that independent candidates earn community support and make it to a ballot. But there are a few central routes that have produced success in getting independent candidates to run for office.
The first is through established, non-partisan organizations, such as 501(c)(4) social welfare advocacy groups, labor unions, trade associations, or political action committees. These organizations, though explicitly not political parties, represent significant blocks of the electorate and can carry significant weight as it pertains to earning community support and garnering media coverage.
Such organizations may use similar thresholds as the major political parties – such as readiness for nomination, support of their causes, and acceptability to the electorate – but with the key differentiator being that these organizations don’t do any formal nominations, and don’t run the primaries themselves. These groups, such as a law enforcement union or political advocacy group like the Sunrise Movement, can throw their weight behind candidates they feel would best represent their interests in office in the hopes of increasing that candidate’s profile. They can still employ endorsements and fundraising the same way an established political party can, but these groups tend to be more issue and results-oriented, with far less of an emphasis on the type of fealty and loyalty expected from institutional party support.
And because independent candidates, by definition, will lack the organizational and fundraising muscle of major political parties, grassroots community support is a far bigger imperative than it is for party candidates. Independent candidates already face an uphill battle against more-established challengers, so the more grassroots support a potential candidate can garner – whether through prior name recognition, media coverage and/or career history – the more likely it is that they’ll garner that much-needed non-partisan organizational support as well.
Organizations and groups looking to support independent candidates also must choose their battles carefully – which, in this context, means identifying open races that they feel are ripe for non-partisan challengers. Because the independent candidate faces a steeper climb than party-backed candidates, groups, advocacy orgs, religious institutions, etc. must be strategic when deciding which specific races they wish to elevate an independent challenger for. These groups and grassroots communities don’t have the vertical integration and longstanding establishment of political parties, so they can’t support candidates for every single office indiscriminately and hope that they all win – they have to concentrate their efforts around what they deem to be the most “winnable” elections for an independent, and hyperfocus on winning those specific races.
In addition to all of the critical on-the-ground support from aforementioned advocacy groups, unions, and grassroots communities, Good Party is working towards breaking down barriers for independent candidates to run for office – both through Good Party Academy and by providing free campaign tools for non-partisan and third-party candidates.
Good Party Academy is a curriculum developed to help coach potential candidates, step by step, through the process of putting together a platform and setting themselves up to run an independent campaign – the type of support and information that is typically provided to party-backed candidates by their political party, but which generally eludes independent candidates because they aren’t a part of any greater political institution.
With coaching, resources, and even AI-driven campaign organization tools, Good Party is working towards making it more feasible for independent candidates to actually mount campaigns and support them in whichever race they’re running against a major party-backed candidate in. To learn more about the tools Good Party provides to those interested in running for office as independents – especially if you’ve ever thought about running for office yourself – check out Good Party’s resources for running for office as an independent.
Image Credit: Christian Lucas