In this electoral strategy document Collective Power Network lays out a concrete plan for how to not only put more socialists in office, but to carry out the crucial work of building effective mass organization.
This document is intended as a programmatic guide for DSA chapters on building a successful socialist electoral program to build working-class political power. It gives concrete guidance to answer key questions for the left:
- How can socialists win elections?
- How do we make our endorsements matter?
- How do we tell real fighting candidates seeking our endorsement from opportunists?
- How do we hold candidates accountable to us?
- How can electoral work facilitate working class formation?
This strategy is largely based on the work of Metro DC DSA’s electoral program which, cycle after cycle, has succeeded in building power by electing socialists. It also draws lessons from observing other highly-successful DSA electoral programs such as those in New York, Chicago, Philly, and also Pittsburgh during the 2018 cycle.
Since 2017, Metro DC DSA has been instrumental in electing a County Executive of a million-plus resident county, three State Legislators, a State Board of Education member, and the first socialist on the DC council in over forty years.
This work has been so significant that its been noted that the DC region listens more closely to the Democratic Socialists of America than the editorial board of the Washington Post. This is not a project of building socialist electoral power somewhere far off in the mists of time, but here today in the real, living world. Building effective organization and making our endorsement mean something were crucial to these results.
Most importantly, it means we’ve been able to make a real impact on working people’s lives. Our elected candidates have, for example, capped insulin charges, introduced legislation to end Maryland’s “Law Enforcement Bill of Rights” and to build social housing, and committed to defunding the police. Metro DC DSA’s endorsed candidates beat a millionaire pharma bro, a Capital One bank executive, and the charter school lobby—not once but twice.
Candidates have noticed this too. They understand that our endorsement is more than yet another logo on their website or mailers, but has the weight and muscle of a real organization behind it. So when we ask them to take bold stances, they do so knowing we have the means to back them up rather than leaving them to twist in the wind. Our candidates recognize our role in their victory.
Our chapter has taken leadership roles in forging both electoral and non-electoral coalitions such as the fight for rent control and the growing movement to defund the MPD. By building effective coalitions we’ve been able to deliver significant material resources towards victory, and fight for our demands amidst nasty attacks by our enemies and even during a global pandemic. These coalitions persist after the election and serve as the launchpad for taking the struggle into the legislative and non-electoral arenas, a strategy similar to NYC DSA’s successful twinned electoral and rent control campaigns. But none of that is possible without effective organization and clear strategy.
This strategy doesn’t guarantee victory; no strategy can. Our chapter has lost elections and has made errors in its campaigns. But following this strategy does mean shunning many of the most common mistakes the left has made that have doomed electoral efforts to failure and irrelevance. Like other successful DSA electoral programs we have avoided becoming just a voter guide, just an email list, or just another small grouping running a stunt campaign on their own cleverly-named ballot line.
Winning an election is not the same as winning power. Going up against the ruling class means going against the most powerful enemy of justice and equality the world has ever seen. In the final conflict the capitalist class will not respect democracy if it means a serious threat to the dictatorship of capital. Only socialism and workers’ government can produce real democracy and justice.
But at the same time our ability to win matters. Without victories, our movement loses momentum and eventually stops moving at all. By winning, we demonstrate that these ideas, once thought of as fringe or impossible, are now the center of the debate.It should be obvious that decades of self-imposed isolation and chasing ballot lines as a substitute for effective organization has only reinforced marginalization. A multiracial working-class democratic socialist constituency exists if we do the work to grow it.
A mass workers’ party isn’t going to fall from the sky. Building DSA as an effective mass organization is not ancillary to our goals, but essential to it. We consider the strategy presented here to be a battle-tested field guide for building the victories and organization necessary to win.
Introduction: For Electoral Organizing
Everywhere the ruling class is contesting for power is terrain for class struggle. Just as the workplace and the apartment house are sites of power and hence of struggle between classes, so too is the ballot box. The stakes are real and they are high: control of state power can mean the difference between victories that can raise the sights of millions of workers or another long document rationalizing yet another defeat. While we reject the notion that socialism can be won at the ballot box alone, we do not believe that ignoring electoral struggles is a viable path towards socialist power, and having socialists in office can create more favorable conditions at the grassroots by demonstrating the strength of our base to other political actors, as well as ensuring we have a greater ability to institutionalize what we’ve won by translating our demands into legislation.
We Can Win
DSA has shown that it can win electoral contests. This document is inspired by the lessons learned by CPN electoral organizers, both from their own campaigns and from observation and conversation about DSA electoral campaigns elsewhere. DSA campaigns guided by the following CPN-endorsed principles have succeeded in electing candidates to a wide variety of state and local positions in a wide variety of political terrains. We know these fights can be won because they have been won. Still, winning requires following the correct strategies.
We Can Exercise Direct Power
Winning elections matters. Winning a city council race can mean the difference between having or not having robust rent control laws, strong protections for undocumented workers, living wages, and more. While electoral organizing is only one terrain of struggle, it is still an indispensable one for socialists.
We Can Shape the Terrain for Other Organizing
Electoral campaigns allow socialists to institutionalize and build off what we are able to win through mobilization and deep organizing. Electing socialists magnifies the potential scale of our victories when they occur. For example, it is easier to do labor organizing when we defeat “Right to Work” laws. It is easier to do tenant organizing when we win robust rent control and tenant protections. Our pressure campaigns are more likely to succeed when the politicians we are seeking to pressure are aligned with our movement, or who have reason to fear that a challenge led by us could unseat them.
We Can Build Mass
Politics exists in the millions. While our work in other fields of struggle has a direct effect on our ability to run effective socialist candidates, electoral organizing presents unique opportunities for the left in growing and diversifying our organization, and expanding our layer of leadership. While there are certainly specific non-electoral campaigns that present similar opportunities, electoral organizing simply takes place at a much larger scale than most of our work usually does. It gives us specific in-roads to communities and coalitions we would not otherwise have access to and the scale of these campaigns gives many more members the chance to participate in a meaningful way while interacting directly with workers in our communities.
Meeting people where they are means we must have a robust and dynamic approach to electoral work. We have seen how engaging in electoral campaigns, most notably the Bernie Sanders campaigns for president in the 2016 and 2020 cycles, have led to by far the largest engagement and membership growth of any DSA campaign. DSA membership surges whenever we have major electoral wins, for example after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won her congressional seat. While campaigns like Bernie represent unique historical opportunities that can’t necessarily be replicated at will, electoral organizing as an approach is a critical avenue to growing our influence, our size, our diversity, and our power.
Therefore, we believe that DSA should engage in strategically-oriented electoral organizing and that, contingent on local conditions, chapters should place a high priority on strategically oriented electoral organizing both for its own sake and as a strategy for supporting other campaigns whenever feasible.
Part 1: Organizational Orientation
For a Dynamic Mass Organization, Not Third Party
The point for socialists is not to own a ballot line, the point is to secure a government democratically controlled by the working class. Recent DSA experience has shown that strategic use of the Democratic Party ballot line has had an undeniable positive impact for the left and appears to be by far the surest path to doing so.
Fixating on the Democratic Party, either as an object for conquest, a villain to be destroyed, or a group to split from is strategically misplaced and misunderstands what that Party is. The Democratic Party of today is not a political party in the sense of historical socialist or communist parties. They are neither funded by member dues nor do they have strong mechanisms to enforce party discipline on members who are elected on their ballot line. Rather, the Democrats are a semi-governmental ballot line, a nexus of party functionaries, consultancies, and donors, and finally a powerful brand which commands the voting loyalties of a huge proportion of the country’s voters. Especially true among the voters we need to build a governing majority.
Unlike in most countries when you register your party affiliation you don’t go to that party’s local headquarters, you register with the state. This is highly unique to the United States and means that superimposing European left electoral models onto our conditions is deeply misleading. Because of this unique governmental party system the ballot line simply cannot be controlled, either by us or the Party establishment. In the vast majority of states and electoral contests (presidential caucuses being a notable exception) the ballot line of the Democratic Party is owned and operated by the state itself. Leadership can and does influence primary elections, but they cannot dictate who uses their ballot line; that is determined by a plurality of whoever chooses to vote in a Democratic Party Primary or Caucus.
By developing a party-like structure within DSA and using the Democratic ballot line where necessary, DSA can continue to both exercise democratic control over our own candidate selection and candidate discipline while also continuing to actually elect socialists to office. We believe that the left has been more successful electorally in the last four years than the last 50 years, in part due to the strategic orientation put forward in works such as “A Blueprint for A New Party.” To turn back on this model at this point would be a massive error.
Therefore, we support continuing to strategically use the Democratic ballot line to elect socialists. We reject the idea that third party ballot lines are a necessary precondition of a workers party or that pursuit of independent ballot lines as an end unto itself. Our goal is for strategic campaigns that grow the capacity and diversity of our organization, bring our ideas to a mass audience, and reshape the political terrain upon which the workers movement operates. In most cases the Democratic ballot line will be the most effective tactic to meet those ends.
For Maintaining DSA Control on DSA Campaign Efforts
To the extent possible, DSA should maintain strategic and operational control of DSA member efforts on behalf of endorsed candidates. DSA should not simply be a clearinghouse for sending volunteers directly to campaigns to be used and directed for whatever purposes the candidate prefers outside of DSA’s priorities. State election laws often mandate this kind of separation between candidates’ campaigns and outside efforts from supporter groups such as DSA.
In addition to getting the candidate elected, DSA also builds power by influencing the campaign to take a class struggle orientation where possible, for example via walksheet design, canvassing scripts, and targeting neighborhoods more likely to be receptive to these messages. New volunteers often come to electoral canvasses as their first DSA event, so when DSA controls the canvass it can also control the pre- and post-canvass trainings and socials, which are instrumental in bringing these new members fully into DSA and beginning them along their path of political development.
Therefore, we support DSA maintaining as much control or influence as possible on the campaigns of our endorsed candidates to the extent possible given local circumstances.
For Building Durable Labor & Progressive Coalitions
DSA candidates typically have a much harder time winning when left & labor forces are disunited. Socialist-oriented voters broadly, much less just DSA members specifically, are nowhere near a majority in the vast majority of America. Nowhere in America does DSA have the funding capacity to sustain a contested campaign. Thus, we must cultivate and maintain strong labor and progressive coalitions to help ensure victory whenever possible.
This centrality of building trusted partnerships with labor groups is one (of many) important reasons that DSA must have a dynamic and nuanced approach in our non-electoral labor organizing. DSA cannot, from outside and from a position of weakness, force unions to take a huge risk of moving far to the left when a miscalculated step can cost union members dearly. DSA’s labor strategy must be multifaceted, building relationships with labor leaders where possible, while building trust among both organized and unorganized workers by proving that we are a serious organization that can secure real material benefits for working people.
Until DSA is larger, stronger, and has proven itself by years of winning, we will be incapable of imposing our agenda wholesale and thus our influence is best exercised within left-labor electoral coalitions. Indeed, DSA can operate as a leader and first mover in these coalitions, providing the rigorous analysis and a committed volunteer base that rivals almost anything extant on the left, which purchases DSA significant influence in these coalitions. CPN-led electoral campaigns have extracted policy concessions from left-labor alliances in such ways.
Therefore, we support building and sustaining labor and progressive coalitions as part of DSA campaigns. The likelihood of marshaling such a coalition should be a major factor in deciding whether or not to endorse in a given race.
For a Strong National Electoral Committee
The goal of our electoral program is not to elect lone dissenting voices across the country, but to link growing numbers of socialist electeds in a nationwide movement. We believe this is only possible with a strong national organization. The National Electoral Committee (NEC) must take on the responsibility of building relationships directly with candidates and elected officials, in addition to the relationships that candidates have with local DSA electoral programs. This will give candidates stronger connections to the democratic socialist movement and view themselves rightly as a part of it. The NEC should maintain these relationships even after the elections, serving as a source for model legislation and political support during their time in office. We cannot afford to elect candidates and then simply just move on to the next campaign.
The NEC should be governed by electoral strategy documents debated by the National Political Committee that make clear which races to target and prioritize. The National Electoral Committee should commit to serious fundraising efforts and establish a national PAC. Such an organization, depending upon the particular campaign finance regulations of each race, could make direct contributions to nationally endorsed candidates or fund the local chapter’s efforts. The National Electoral Committee should also take on work that some chapters may not have the skillset for including: designing walk cards and literature, providing advice on campaign finance, administering VAN access, and helping chapters set up their campaigns.
It is also essential that political activity gets coordinated on the regional level. An electoral campaign that may be nonviable with involvement from one chapter, may be successful with commitments from those nearby. Strong democratic regional organizations could also share resources like campaign finance committees, better manage legislative pushes, and mobilize larger numbers of members for essential times during campaigns like “Get Out the Vote” operations.
Therefore, we believe a strong and proactive National Electoral Committee is essential to growing the socialist movement as a force that can govern. It must take a proactive role in working with electeds, serving as ambassadors of our electoral strategy and aims to those in office, and help ensure we are pursuing an effective and integrated electoral approach across chapters and regions.
Part 2: Campaign Strategies & Tactics
For Mass Canvassing
As a cash-poor but volunteer-rich organization, DSA’s main electoral approach should be building large-scale canvassing operations. Canvassing is proven to be one of the most effective means of winning elections, both by persuading voters to provide support and in identifying existing supporters to motivate them to actually show up and vote. DSA’s unique canvassing capabilities help distinguish our organization from others. A chapter that can field fifty people to a canvass launch will make it one of the most effective political organizations in a region. Canvassing metrics, like doors knocked or volunteer numbers, also serve as an easy metric for demonstrating the value of DSA as a coalition partner.
Canvassing, especially when DSA can use and retain its own voter information system (e.g. the DSA instance of VAN), allows us to identify supporters not only of a particular candidate but also those who might be allies or supporters of other campaigns and struggles in the future. Canvassing also provides DSA organizers with essential skills that can be used for non-electoral efforts.
Therefore, we support building large scale canvassing operations as part of almost any DSA electoral campaign.
Against Astro-Turf Campaigning
Many campaign strategies such as hotspot flyering, hosting small house parties, or sinking massive amounts of money into mailers or other paid media can have some utility, but for DSA campaigns the opportunity cost of diverting volunteers or scarce funds away from canvassing is almost never a wise use of resources. Other campaigns do them, not necessarily because they are the most effective, but rather because they do not have what we have: a dedicated army of volunteers willing and able to put in the work of canvassing.
Therefore, we do not support diverting time, people, or resources away from canvassing operations unless there is a clear, fact-based case for why some other strategy would better support candidate victory and build power.
Part 3: Candidate Selection
For Running to Win
A candidate with no reasonable path to victory cannot build power for socialism. Having good politics should be necessary but not sufficient for a candidate to gain DSA support. Successful grassroots electoral campaigning requires people power and it is impossible to rally the number of volunteers needed, as well as maintain the high levels of volunteer motivation needed, without a clear sense that such hard work might pay off. People do not want to give up hours of their time for a lost cause.
Running large numbers of losing campaigns is also disastrous to DSA’s reputation: it damages our ability to build credibility among allies and to pose credible threats to our opponents if we consistently demonstrate that we are weak.
Therefore, we support limiting endorsements to only candidates with a clear and compelling path to victory.
Against Paper Endorsements
Building power means using DSA’s endorsement strategically. An endorsement with no resources behind it, with no substantial boon towards candidate victory, is a powerless endorsement. Powerless endorsements dilute the impact of powerful endorsements and weaken the reputation of the organization making them. Why would a candidate make concessions to win an endorsement or feel accountable to the endorsing organization if that endorsement has little material impact on their chance of victory?
Paper endorsements are endorsements that can exist simply on paper: the organization sends an announcement in support of a candidate and allows the candidate to place the organization’s logo on their promotional materials, but the organization does not invest time, money, or other organizational resources into helping elect that candidate. Paper endorsements only have power when the endorsement announcement sends a strong enough signal to move large numbers of voters who have a high enough trust in that signal to alter their voting behavior. In no jurisdiction does DSA have anywhere near enough members or fellow travelers (much less the level of political discipline among those members) for a simple endorsement announcement to move a decisive number of votes in and of itself. Losses, even for candidates that were just endorsed on paper, will still be used by our political opponents as proof that democratic socialism does not have a viable future.
Therefore, we oppose endorsements that do not make DSA a significant factor towards candidate victory, thus undermining candidate accountability to DSA.
A corollary to only running races where DSA can be a major part of the winning coalition and invest enough to be a major factor in the candidate’s victory is that that is impossible when DSA endorses so many candidates that DSA resources and attention are stretched beyond capacity.
Individual candidates should not be considered in a vacuum, but rather in relation all other potential candidate endorsements as well as non-electoral work. There is a clear opportunity cost: DSA member time spent on one candidate cannot be spent on other candidates in non-overlapping jurisdictions. If a DSA chapter only has the resources to credibly support one candidate, it should not endorse more than one candidate. A candidate may have excellent politics and prospects, but are they the best campaign in the cycle to build power for socialism?
Saying “No” to candidates seeking endorsement can be a good thing, it preserves the exclusivity of DSA endorsements as something valuable and worth pursuing. We should avoid the trap many other progressive organizations have fallen into of endorsing every candidate that shares agreement even when only a handful are viable. Our endorsement is not a seal of approval, it is an organizational commitment that has a knock-on effect on every other area of work we can and cannot then engage in. This exclusivity can also be a means for inducing policy concessions from candidates who would not otherwise offer them. By saying no to candidates with good politics when they don’t fit the strategic needs of the chapter, it makes clear that we won’t subordinate our organization to a candidate’s needs.
Therefore, we support limiting the number of endorsements in a particular cycle and location to only the most strategic candidates and to only as many candidates as the local chapter(s) have capacity to maintain a significant part of the winning coalition. We also support endorsing no more candidates in a race as there are seats available in that race.
Towards Developing Candidates from Within DSA
Since DSA’s rise to national prominence is still so recent, we have had to rely on candidates whose primary identity is adjacent to but not primarily situated in DSA or the socialist movement. This is understandable and acceptable for now since the benefits of electing socialists is clear. We do feel that endorsed candidates should be at least paper members of DSA.
However, DSA should move towards identifying, developing, and elevating potential candidates for political office from within DSA cadre. These cadre will be less likely to see DSA’s aims as external to their own and DSA will have more accountability mechanisms to deploy on such candidates, all of which allow for more democratic control of these seats rather than having them held by lone individuals.
Therefore, while we recognize the need to currently endorse many non-cadre, we support developing the capacity in DSA to select more and more of our endorsed candidates from existing DSA cadre.
Part 4: Endorsement Process
For Endorsing Early
Too many chapters make the mistake of releasing their endorsements too late in an election cycle and thereby forfeiting significant power. By being the first mover to endorse in a left-labor alliance, DSA can make previously less viable candidates suddenly seem viable (“Look, they got the DSA endorsement”) and prompt allies to endorse our preferred candidates to maintain progressive unity. This credibility is built up over time through proving ourselves as a serious political organization.
Also, grassroots, canvassing-heavy campaigns require significant amounts of time to build up. One or two weekends of canvassing is not sufficient to win a campaign, it requires months of work and that means the endorsement needs to be in place long enough to establish DSA electoral working group structures, fundraise, recruit volunteers, and sustain months of canvassing operations.
Therefore, we support making electoral endorsements early in their respective cycles. DSA should use early endorsements to demonstrate the viability of our endorsed candidates and consolidate progressive and labor support around them.
For a Rigorous Process
Flimsy endorsement processes are easier to game, both by candidates and by DSA members prominent in their chapter with personal rather than collective agendas.
As part of the candidate endorsement process, chapters should use questionnaires, candidate forums, and other vetting mechanisms to draw clear lines which align with the chapter priorities and force candidates to state clearly where they stand relative to those lines. These lines should be developed via democratic process on the chapter level to reflect local conditions.
There is, however, one line we feel should be universal across all chapters: DSA should only endorse candidates who consider themselves democratic socialists and who are willing to state so publicly (though the degree to which they incorporate that label in their campaigning is subject to local conditions).
An endorsement process is the first test of a candidate’s courage. If they don’t have the guts to take tough stances when seeking endorsement, how likely are they to summon the courage to fight for the working class? It is far better to discover the candidate is a coward before endorsing rather than after sinking DSA effort and reputation to secure their victory. This means candidates seeking endorsements should be forced to answer yes or no questions about specific positions before offering a further elaboration, in order to avoid diplomatically (or deceptively) worded answers.
Therefore, we support chapter level mechanisms for establishing clear positions that DSA considers priorities and extracting clear answers from candidates on those positions.
For an Informed Process
The endorsement process must present a clear view of the candidate to membership. Thus, chapter endorsement processes must be sufficiently rigorous and incorporate sufficient political education for chapter members to ensure a vote that is informed, considered, and democratic.
To accomplish this, the endorsement process must not be overly rushed and entail some degree of organizational centralization regarding process. If members do not truly know and understand the candidate and the context of their race, the endorsement vote ceases to be truly democratic as members may cede undue influence to charismatic candidates or charismatic individuals in the chapter.
In addition to questionnaires and forums, there must be debate, and this debate must not just be about whether the candidate has good or bad politics, but must also include broader strategic considerations: is supporting this candidate the best use of our time, resources, and reputation?
To meet this end we support chapters having clearly delegated “electoral committees” that are responsible for processing and managing endorsement resolutions to come before the chapter. They would help ensure there is proper vetting of candidates and that proposals before the general membership are given proper context. The purpose of such a committee would not be to be simply a disinterested administrator however. Such committees should be chaired by members directly elected to the position by, and accountable to, the general membership. They would ideally present recommendations on endorsements that come before the chapter but general membership would have the final say.
Therefore, we support establishing an endorsement process that is deliberate and ensures members know not only the candidate they are voting on but also the strategic context in which the vote takes place. We support the creation of chapter level “electoral committees” to shepherd this process in a political way and help ensure strategic and political context is incorporated into decisions on endorsements.
Against Any Non-Endorsed Campaigning
DSA members should not be allowed to use DSA resources or purport to speak for DSA in support of non-endorsed candidates. DSA members representing themselves as part of DSA but who do not receive a DSA endorsement should be grounds for discipline.
Therefore, we support strictly limiting the use of DSA resources, platforms, and logo/name to only support candidates who have been formally endorsed.