Earlier this month, districts on both sides of the state line in the Kansas City metropolitan area elected slates of school board candidates. At least one of those candidates did not reply to the KC Education Enterprise candidate survey, saying “I have the endorsement of the NEA and the Kansas City Star,” and she thought that was sufficient to win the race. (Of course, she also had campaign signs, a website and knocked on an awful lot of doors.)
Sighing to myself, I did not argue, because that is the wisdom I had heard, as well. The received wisdom goes like this: Candidates with strategic endorsements are most likely to win, because voters will follow the advice of the newspaper or teachers’ union, especially since very little information about the candidates is readily available in most districts. In particular, I was told the NEA endorsement in particular was crucial for a campaign, because the union gets teachers out to vote, which can make a significant difference in elections with low turnouts, typical of school board elections.
Most district residents — even registered voters — are not always aware that a school board election is scheduled, and turnout is usually low. Even a handful of votes can make a difference. In the Hickman Mills School District, for example, where school board leadership will be critical in attempts to regain full accreditation, only about 10 percent of registered voters cast a ballot. Only 153 votes separated the winners from the losers. In other words, 154 voters — that’s not a whole lot of people — made a big difference in the lives of the students of that district. And that’s a typical turnout in school board elections.
Despite two major endorsements, however, the candidate who told me she was confident of success did not win. And that loss started me wondering about the received wisdom, curious to learn whether it is true.
I started by taking a look at all 18 contested school board elections during the general election earlier this month. Only seven of those races had endorsements. The Kansas City Star and the Missouri National Education Association (MNEA) endorsed 20 candidates in those races. (The Kansas NEA does not endorse candidates.) What that fact tells me is that endorsements are important in less than half the districts in the Kansas City metropolitan area.
But what about the races with endorsements? Surely those help candidates win campaigns. Well, maybe … and maybe not. Admittedly 20 candidates in seven races in one election is too small a sample to extrapolate from. But we can use this information to start examining patterns and asking questions about the conventional wisdom that says endorsements win campaigns. This year, slightly more than half of the 20 candidates with endorsements won; and slightly less than half lost. Based on that evidence, it appears endorsements have a neutral effect on campaigns.
Examining the numbers more carefully, however, it appears that one endorsement may help candidates more than the other. About half of those who received the Star‘s endorsement won, and half lost, so the newspaper’s backing ended up being a tossup for candidates. Of the ten receiving the endorsement of the teachers’ union, however, seven won and only three lost. Therefore, it appears that more voters may follow the advice of the MNEA when it comes to electing school board members.
In addition to endorsements, being an incumbent helps. Most (but not all) incumbents who run to retain their seats succeed.
Money also helps. Money allows candidates to print and post more signs reminding constituents about their campaigns. And money can be held over from previous — even losing — campaigns for offices such as seats in the state legislature. Which the incumbent candidate who planned to rely on the two strategic endorsements discovered, much to her chagrin. Her opponent had enough funds to saturate the district with signs. And — even more importantly — the night before the election, he had enough funds to pay for robocalls from a telemarketing office in Washington D.C. And he ended up winning by more than 200 votes.
With enough money, it doesn’t matter whether you are an incumbent or have the endorsement of the Star and the teachers’ union. With enough money, you can rely on people’s ignorance of the election. You can motivate those most likely to vote for you to turn out at the polls while most people don’t vote. With money, you can continually remind constituents about your candidacy throughout the campaign season, because everywhere they drive in the district, they see your signs. With money, you can ensure that if voters know nothing else about the school board candidates, they recognize your name. And there are people — lots of people — who will vote for a candidate on the basis of name recognition alone.
So here’s what I think about the received wisdom: Endorsements are important, no doubt about it. Being an incumbent also helps. Posting campaign information online and getting out out to meet constituents help but are no guarantee; I’ve seen candidates win who did neither and candidates lose who did both. But money … well, money trumps all.
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