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How to Follow a Local Political Race

While the presidential race has a tendency to hog the spotlight, there’s plenty more at stake every election year. Here’s help with understanding local races, and how to learn more about the candidates on your local ballot.

A man walks to cast his ballot at an early voting center in Washington, D.C. (Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images)

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Summary

The 2020 congressional races may be standing in the shadow of presidential politics, and the coverage those races do get often focuses on competition between rival candidates while downplaying policies and platforms. Knowing how to decipher these “horse race” stories can help you understand what’s at stake for you.

Think about it this way: The campaigns themselves are constantly watching certain signals — polls, fundraising, public opinion — to understand what’s going on in their races. They adjust their tactics accordingly. As a voter, you have the power to adjust your actions, too. Here are a few questions to ask.

How Competitive Is My District?

The Cook Political Report is a nonpartisan newsletter that analyzes federal elections and campaigns to determine whether your current representative will have an easy time hanging onto their seat or if a challenger has a shot at defeating them. Its authors watch polls, track fundraising and outside spending, and talk to the campaigns and candidates. Then they assign a daily rating on the competitiveness of each race:

  • Solid (Republican or Democrat): These races are not considered competitive and are not likely to become closely contested.
  • Likely (Republican or Democrat): These seats are not considered competitive at this point, but they have the potential to become engaged.
  • Lean (Republican or Democrat): These are considered competitive races, but one party has an advantage.
  • Toss-Up: These are the most competitive; either party has a good chance of winning.

You can look up the ratings for all of the House races here. These ratings update daily based on what’s happening on the campaign trail.

Where Do My Candidates Get Their Money?

Political organizations and nonprofit committees have spent hundreds of millions of dollars influencing elections, so tracking your candidates’ campaign finances is another illuminating metric. Where did they get all that money, and how are they spending it?

One number that can help you determine the strength of a campaign is the percentage of funds raised from PACs, or political action committees. A PAC is a collection of individuals who have pooled their money to donate to candidates. The best funded PACs are corporations and interest groups — the NRA, Planned Parenthood and labor unions all have PACs — but they can also be funded by civically engaged folks who aren’t political operators.

A reliance on PACs, versus individual donors, can tell you something about institutional support versus grassroots support. A higher percentage of funds from PACs means a candidate’s donor money comes mostly in fairly large checks, as opposed to donations from individuals. A higher percentage of individual donations, on the other hand, is a sign of grassroots enthusiasm about the campaign.

Federal candidates have to file data about their fundraising and spending with the Federal Election Commission, the agency that enforces campaign finance law, on a regular schedule. This makes it easier to peek inside this universe.

Most campaigns file quarterly reports on April 15, July 15, Oct. 15 and Jan. 15. To look up specific campaign fundraising details by candidate or race type, check out ProPublica’s Election Databot.

At first glance, most political fundraising amounts sound like a LOT of money. So, how do you know what those numbers mean?

That’s where the ranking numbers come in handy: More competitive races typically attract more money. Campaigns need money to get their messages out; buying advertising and organizing rallies, Zoom town halls and other campaign activities is expensive. A toss-up race is likely to have two candidates who have raised more money than many other candidates in less-competitive contests.

You can also look at the money gap between two candidates. If a candidate is at the lower end of the fundraising scale, particularly against a well-funded competitor, that usually indicates their chances are not great. But there are exceptions — see August’s Democratic primary race in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, in which challenger Cori Bush, a Black Lives Matter activist, defeated the 20-year (and highly funded) incumbent congressman William Lacy Clay in a major upset. So don’t stop believin’ if your candidate of choice is outspent.

Get the 411 on Your Local Races

The League of Women Voters has a trove of information meant to help you understand your ballot. The League is nonpartisan and works to arm citizens with the information they need to confidently vote.

For its VOTE411.org project, the League reached out to every candidate running for local and state office and asked each one a set of identical questions, like:

  • What experiences qualify you to represent the citizens living in your district?
  • What would be your top three priorities if elected?
  • How will you work to increase job opportunities for your constituents?

Because the League has so much juice in the political space, the majority of candidates actually answered, in their own words, allowing you to see where those running for office in your community stand on the issues.

You can get a list of all the information that the League of Women Voters has on local, state and federal candidates and ballot measures by searching for your address or state here.

Get personalized voting information sent to your inbox by signing up for ProPublica’s User’s Guide to Democracy.


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Cynthia Gordy Giwa is ProPublica’s marketing director.

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