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The Great Vote Smart Research Off: Do State Legislative Endorsements Matter?

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

Written By: Naomi Tilles, Vote Smart Intern

Naomi is an incoming Junior at Pomona College.

Can you name your state legislators? If you’re like more than 80 percent of Americans, you’re having trouble remembering (don’t worry, you can find them through Vote Smart here). State legislators get less media attention than federal elected officials, but the bills they vote on have a huge impact on their constituents' lives. For example, your state legislature determines how much state funding goes into public schools or what the standards are for police use of force. They also enact legislation on issues such as environmental protection, expanding Medicaid, or allowing voters to vote by mail during a global pandemic. This November, 44 states will hold state legislative elections.

Although many voters are unable to name their state legislators, special interest groups are paying attention. Across the 44 states with legislative elections this year, state-level special interest groups such as labor unions, environmental protection groups, or gun-rights advocates have already endorsed more than 1,500 candidates. But how much do these endorsements influence voting?

The state-level special interest groups with the largest support bases are probably labor unions. In 2019, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 16.4 million Americans - 10.3% of the total workforce - were represented by a union. And union endorsements were a significant predictor of success in the 17 states where legislative primary elections have already taken place this year. In those states, 379 state legislative candidates were endorsed by labor unions. Of those, 268 won their primaries, 95 lost, and another 21 are contesting races that are currently too close to call. This means that labor union endorsees had an impressive 75% success rate in their primary races.

Non-union special interest groups are generally focused on a specific issue; reproductive health, animal protection, and lowering taxes are the priorities of some of the groups endorsing candidates in legislative elections this year. As a result, these groups often have fewer engaged supporters than labor unions. But their endorsements still had a significant impact on primary candidates’ success. In the 17 states that already held their primaries, 667 candidates were endorsed by special interest groups other than labor unions. Of these candidates, 407 won their primaries, 219 lost, and another 42 are too close to call, meaning that 65% of non-union group endorsees will progress to the general election.

There were also 1,832 legislative candidates from the 17 states who were not endorsed by any special interest group or union. In contrast to the success of endorsed candidates, only 538 of the non-endorsed candidates won their primaries, while 1,155 lost and 138 are too close to call. This means that only 32% of non-endorsed candidates will be on the ballot in November.

Clearly, endorsements in state legislative races can make a difference. There are several explanations for why this could be. Voters are more likely to trust candidate endorsements by special interest groups promoting values and policy preferences that align with their own. Another factor is that endorsements often come with funding for the candidate’s campaign, enabling them to reach more potential voters. Additionally, some candidates who already have an electoral advantage, such as incumbents, are both more likely to be endorsed and more likely to win. For example, 47% of union-endorsed candidates were incumbents in their districts.

Two things are certain - your state legislature makes laws and policies that directly impact your life, and special interest group endorsements have a big influence on who gets elected. As the November general elections draw closer, groups will release new endorsements for state and federal candidates. Stay informed about these groups and all their endorsements here.

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