The goal of legislative elections, whether at the federal or state level, is to build a majority – the fifty percent plus one needed to set the agenda and pass legislation. The prevailing wisdom is to create the highest “floor” possible for your party’s members in a given chamber, but I’d like to advance a new model for thinking about majority building.
I call it the “Leaven Theory.” In baking, your leaven – typically yeast – is a tiny but important ingredient to helping the rest of the ingredients rise and form a bread. This approach to majority building means identifying, recruiting, and supporting those members who will help you build a more sustainable majority, year over year.
In the “Highest Possible Floor” Theory, you aren’t thinking past the current election cycle, you work to get the candidate who is in the race across the finish line, and, due to limited resources, sometimes have to abandon really good candidates because your first priority is incumbent protection and you’re going after the seats where polling is the closest.
This approach necessitates spending resources on members who haven’t been reliable team players, who haven’t built effective campaign infrastructures, and who haven’t done the hard work to deserve re-election.
But under the “Leaven Theory,” you’re engaging in long-term thinking and you’re focused on training and building the infrastructure needed for the long haul.
When you do win a majority with a “Floor” Strategy, it can be difficult to advance an agenda because you haven’t built the right team and the members you invested in don’t have the infrastructure or the will-power to weather the storms of difficult votes.
So what does a “Leaven” approach actually look like?
It starts by setting clear expectations for the types of campaigns your candidates should build. Campaigns need to be investing in list building and online fundraising. At least 30% of the money they raise from individuals should be coming from grassroots donors. The candidates need to have active campaigns that are working hard to earn every vote and learn about the concerns of their constituents.
Candidates in safe seats need to be doing all of the above AND helping their colleagues with money, with email lists, and their time. If they’re not committed to building and growing the team, it’s time to find someone new, or at a minimum, remember how unhelpful they were when they’re the one needing help.
Approaching majority building as just a numbers game belies the importance of what majorities are built to do.