Endorsements are a part of most elections. In the urban and local context, they can come from other elected officials (National, State, and Local), Political Action Committees (PACs), and newspapers. Regardless of the source of the endorsements, the conventional wisdom is that candidates seek out endorsements because they believe they help voters make informed decisions. Despite their popularity during campaigns, we know very little about how local elected officials, PACs, and community leaders decide which candidates to endorse. We know even less about the extent to which voters are aware of these endorsements when casting their ballots. Based on our study, PACs use a combination of questionnaires, interviews, and member deliberation to determine which candidates they endorse and voters are aware of these endorsements as they vote. In local elections that lack partisan cues, these endorsements may provide voters with useful shortcuts about which candidates to select.
Utilizing interviews with PAC leaders, candidates, and city council members in addition to exit poll data from 2015 Durham, NC city council election we were able to gain insight into how PACs in Durham decide which candidates to endorse. PACs are social welfare organizations that can engage in political activities because they have a tax designation of 501(c)(4) specifically so that they can engage in politics. To provide some scope about the prevalence of these organizations, we researched midsized cities across the country and found that while some cities don’t have any PACs and some have more than 10 PACs, on average, cities have about three PACs. We believe our results are generalizable to other cities that have active PACs.
We interviewed the leaders of the three main PACs in Durham: The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, the Friends of Durham, and People’s Alliance. Despite some differences in terms of process (candidate interviews and questionnaires) the one constant for all three organizations was the ability for the members of the organizations to deliberate about who should get the endorsements. Each PAC believes they provide voters with valuable information about which candidates to support. In a recent PAC meeting, the interview committee recommended one candidate receive the endorsement, but the members in the room preferred another candidate. One by one, they spoke out in favor of a different candidate. When the body voted, the candidate of the people earned the endorsement from the PAC.
We wondered, are voters aware of the PAC endorsements when they cast their ballots? In our Exit Poll, 45% of the respondents said that the endorsements were very important or somewhat important, while 30% said the endorsements were not important at all. So how aware are voters of these endorsements? We asked: “Do you happen to know if any of the following individuals or organizations endorsed [insert candidate name] for City Council, or didn’t you pay attention to that?” Response options were the, “The People’s Alliance,” “The Independent Weekly,” “The Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People,” “Friends of Durham,” “Other,” and “Don’t Know.” We estimate support for each candidate and find that awareness of at least one of the candidate’s endorsements was positively associated with support for that candidate. We also asked if voters supported candidates because of the issues. In our sample, there was no relationship between voters who said a particular issue was most important to them and the candidates that ran on those issues. We think the weak relationship between issues and candidate preference is because in these contests, the candidates are often very similar on the issues so the endorsements serve as a proxy for issue positions and candidate viability. Thus, the endorsements actually do provide voters with useful information, just as the PACs believe. In the 2015 election, each of the winners was endorsed by the same PAC, while the losers were not. That PAC has a perfect record of picking the winners in the elections between 2009-2015. While this particular PAC has a good record in the last four elections—voter turnout in these elections was quite low. In the 2007 election, voter turnout was the highest it has ever been in terms of sheer number of voters, and a candidate won a seat on the council without an endorsement from that PAC. In our sample, a little less than half indicated that endorsements were important to their vote (45%). Though not all voters said the endorsements were important, many did. Of course, there are voters that did their own research on candidates, but we find a positive relationship between candidate preferences and awareness of a candidate’s endorsements in our study. The type of voter that shows up in off-year elections are invested in the city’s politics and are probably more aware of the PAC endorsements.
When PACs endorse local candidates, they provide accessible information to voters. If voters believe a certain organization advocates for their community, then their endorsements can help voters make informed decisions on Election Day. While it can be hard for voters to feel their impact on National and State level politics, voters can directly impact the policies being implemented in their local communities. During the National and State level election season, voters are inundated with information on candidates. However, much less attention and accessible information is directed toward local candidates. Out study shows that PACs can help fill that void.
Andrea Benjamin is an assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri, Columbia. She is the author of Racial Coalition Building in Local Elections: Elite Cues and Cross-Ethnic Voting (Cambridge University Press).
Alexis Miller is a graduate student in the Woodrow Wilson Department of Politics and the University of Virginia.