Where Have All the Local Candidates Gone?

Another casualty of our nationalized, polarized politics: There aren't enough candidates seeking local office outside the major metros.
Blog Post
Nov. 6, 2023

In the vast tapestry of American democracy, there is an often-overlooked but vital thread that runs through our nation's governance: local offices. Yet, reports from around the country reveal fewer and fewer individuals are willing to step up and run for these crucial positions that shape our communities, impacting everything from policing to land use to education. The reasons behind this shortage of local candidates are multifaceted, and addressing this issue is critical to renewing public trust in U.S. democracy.

Around 95 percent of all elected offices in America are at the local level. Local officeholders are closest to the people they govern, meaning they don’t just govern best, as the saying goes, they also govern the most. However, data on local elections is limited, decentralized, and, for election researchers, dauntingly varied in format and accessibility across America’s 10,000-plus election offices. Unsurprisingly, then, recent trends in local candidate emergence have not been scrutinized as thoroughly as they probably should be.

In the absence of comprehensive national datasets on local candidacy, what we can do is shine a spotlight on specific cases where candidate shortages are raising real concerns among residents about their cities’ future. Take Iowa, one of the most politically active states in the country. In 2023, eight city council races in the Cedar Rapids-Iowa City area will have fewer candidates than there are seats on the ballot, according to reporting by Marissa Payne of the Cedar Rapids Gazette. Cincinnati’s city council election drew the fewest number of candidates in at least 30 years. Last year, Augusta, Maine, had no contested races for city council or the board of education, and a school board seat had no candidates on the ballot.

So why is this happening? And is there anything we can do about it?

Holding a local office can be a thankless job. Despite the scope of their responsibilities, those who serve in local roles receive precious little recognition or glory. Today, our politics is heavily nationalized, with the majority of media and public focus on federal elections and high-profile national figures. This neglect of local politics comes as the financial and policymaking pressures on local governments have grown substantially in recent years.

Of course, when local leaders do get attention in this hyperpartisan polarized climate, it’s often the wrong kind. Local leaders are at greater risk than ever of being thrust into the public eye for transgressing either party’s culture war battle lines. All it takes is a cellphone video or tweet, amplified by partisan media.

Indeed, personal safety and privacy concerns among local candidates and officials are on the rise, in large part due to increasing ideological polarization in the US, which has turned political opponents into enemies. Local leaders, especially school board members and election officials, face the risk of becoming the target of national hatred, intimidation, and threats due to the amplification of local stories by national partisan media. A 2023 survey of 1,400 local elected officials conducted by Princeton University’s Bridging Divides Initiative (BDI) and CivicPulse found that in any given 3-month period nearly half of them have been insulted, a third have been harassed, and nearly one in five threatened. They also found that 14 percent of local officials, and 20 percent of women surveyed, are worried about being attacked or their families being attacked. These trends have undoubtedly had a chilling effect on local candidate emergence.

While partisanship dominates national politics, the lack of party activity at the local level is also contributing to the reduction in the local candidate pool. In the past, strong local party organizations were active participants in even nonpartisan local elections, doing much of the heavy lifting to recruit, train, and raise money for candidates. However, the nationalization of American politics and the two major parties has led to the hollowing out of local party structures, particularly in rural areas, further diminishing parties’ role in local elections.

Another issue stemming from the nationalization of U.S. politics and parties lies in the decreasing engagement among residents with their communities. The erosion of place-based organizations and membership associations, as chronicled by scholars such as Robert Putnam and Theda Skocpol, combined with the shift from real-life interactions to digital communications, have made citizens more passive in their engagement in local civic life. This shift to passive engagement has also affected potential candidates, with national politics overshadowing the importance of local issues and opportunities. Instead of going to a union hall or church fundraiser, more and more people engage in politics by, say, watching cable news or chatting about Donald Trump on social media. Run for Something, a non-profit that encourages political amateurs to run for state and local office, surveyed prospective candidates and found those who emphasized specific community issues and political opportunities were more likely to run than their politically ambitious counterparts who emphasized national politics and figures like Donald Trump.

Money is another major factor. Thanks to relentless digital fundraising campaigns (typically from congressional candidates) seeking small donations, not to mention media stories expressing campaign sticker shock, people increasingly perceive running for office as not only a political undertaking but a massive financial one as well. Except in the rarest cases, local campaigns are less expensive than state or federal campaigns by several orders of magnitude. However, the cost can still be prohibitive, or at least appear to be from the outside. This is especially true for residents from working-class backgrounds, women, and other traditionally underrepresented groups, women of color in particular.

Finally, the timing of local elections matters more than ever in the era of peak political nationalization. Since the Progressive Era, most local elections have been held in odd-numbered years or "off-cycle," meaning they don't coincide with regularly scheduled federal elections. This results in significantly less attention and funding for these contests.

For reformers at the state and local levels who are concerned about the decline in candidate emergence, there are several remedies worth exploring.

For one, states and cities can make running for local office more financially accessible by implementing public financing programs that encourage grassroots fundraising. Some proven examples include small donor matching, as practiced in a growing number of cities from New York City to Santa Fe, and Seattle’s democracy voucher program, implemented for municipal elections in 2017 and since championed by prominent national figures like Andrew Yang. Another approach is for local governments to align their election calendars with federal ones. This change can increase 360-degree participation in local races, as seen in Baltimore, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Austin when those cities consolidated their election calendars.

Other strategies might include the establishment or reinvigoration of institutions that recruit and train candidates at the local level, such as pipeline initiatives like Run for Something and She Should Run, and the political parties themselves. Strengthening local party organizations, or at least addressing the reasons for their decline, particularly in rural areas, would be an important first step toward replenishing the local candidate supply.

To be sure, the shortage of local candidates has other causes that cannot be addressed by structural electoral reform alone. Mass urbanization has left towns and small cities across the country with dwindling—and aging—populations. In these places, the potential supply of candidates is simply smaller than before. In Iowa, many long-time local officials are retiring. Also, candidate quantity is not always correlated with quality. Case in point: the bloated field of 2024 Republican presidential primary hopefuls.

Still, the shortage of local candidates is a challenge that requires our collective attention and action. More than ever, the unsung heroes of local government play a vital role in shaping the future of our communities and the country overall, and we ought to find ways to provide them with the support they need to rise to the occasion.

The strength and durability of American democracy depend on civic-minded people from all walks of life being willing and able to take up the mantle of leadership for their communities, and local candidates are the linchpin holding it all together.

Related Topics
Money in Politics Identity and Polarization Voting, Electoral, and Local Reform