Have National Politics Eclipsed Local?

by on July 8, 2024

Photo of Supreme Court
Supreme Court puts democracy at risk

With Democracy at Risk, Local Candidates Fight for Attention

Last Monday the SF Standard released a front page story claiming mayoral candidate Mark Farrell “lived large on campaign cash while mayor, supervisor.” Josh Koehn’s article was filled with juicy facts made for social media; yet the story quickly disappeared.

Why? Because that morning San Francisco Democrats and others across the nation were riveted on the Supreme Court’s bombshell immunity ruling. People were understandably far more alarmed by the Supreme Court’s placing presidents above the law than about restaurants Farrell dined at in 2017.

Local politics have been completely overshadowed. And this will increase as November approaches. The Supreme Court’s homelessness ruling’s impact on San Francisco briefly got local attention but that soon was surpassed by the ongoing debate over President Biden’s future.

How can local candidates and initiative campaigns get voters’ attention?

Meeting Voters is a Must

San Francisco campaigns face a steeper hurdle because in November 2022 voters aligned the mayor’s election with that of the president. As I wrote opposing Prop H, “a lot of San Francisco activists in 2024 will be focusing on the presidential race” (See “Is SF’s Prop H the Right Reform”?). The debate over Joe Biden’s candidacy means that from now until November mayoral and supervisor candidates in the city face an uphill battle to get attention.

Aligning San Francisco’s mayor’s race with the presidential rather than governor’s cycle was a big mistake. But that mistake can only be corrected in a future election.

For November 2024 I see candidates’ meeting voters as more important than ever. Name recognition will also mean more. Mail pieces will have less impact than usual due to voters’ reduced interest in local races (there are also ten major California ballot measures, adding to the clogging of mailboxes).

Voters remember talking with a candidate or an initiative backer. They will recall it when casting ballots. In contrast, there are so much mail from candidates and initiatives that many voters tune them all out. This will particularly be true in cities like San Francisco, whose voters are overwhelmingly focused on the presidential race.

Local candidates often claim they spend their days meeting voters. But many campaign interactions are either with supporters or at events with the already committed. That’s very different from time consuming and labor intensive door knocking. Or attending public events where you can’t foresee people’s reaction to your message.

But its those latter activities that will produce San Francisco’s local victories this November.

I have not seen any current San Francisco mayoral candidate assemble the volunteer force I saw for Art Agnos in 1987, Willie Brown in 1995, Matt Gonzalez and Gavin Newsom in 2003, or Ed Lee in 2011. Given the high stakes of the race I attribute this decline to potential volunteers’ instead focusing on national politics.

Impact on Supervisor Races

Supervisor campaigns must be having even more trouble gaining attention.

The impact of voters focused on national politics? Name recognition will mean even more. Many voters will ignore all the mail. If they haven’t directly met a supervisor candidate they will vote for the one whose name they recognize.

Recent races in Berkeley and San Francisco have further convinced me that name recognition often decides elections. It has clearly been a key factor in San Francisco electing former supervisors to the San Francisco DCCC.

Supervisor candidates are constantly trying to get their names out. But voters focused on the presidential race ignore their mailers and free media. Many San Francisco voters will be in a constant state of near panic until the presidential election is decided.

That’s a logical and understandable response to the potential loss of democracy in the United States. Some voters can’t be bothered with local races between Democrats.

I see the increased value of name recognition most helping Danny Sauter in D3, Myrna Melgar in D7, and Michael Lai in D11. All face major opponents who have never previously appeared on the ballot while they have.

What About Slate Cards?

A campaign’s endorsement by the local SF Democratic Party once could overcome a lack of name recognition. I describe in The Activist’s Handbook how our winning tenant campaign in 1992 intentionally connected our initiative to the Clinton-Gore campaign. Getting on the SF Democratic Party card in a presidential election cycle once almost assured victory in many local races.

But those days are gone. For reasons I will discuss in a future article, those endorsements—as well as those from other Democratic clubs—will have far less impact this November.

That’s why the candidates and ballot measures engaging in substantial direct voter contact will do the best in November. And given the massive fundraising going on for national campaigns the  local efforts effective at raising dollars will also have an extra edge.

Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw's latest book is Generation Priced Out: Who Gets to Live in the New Urban America. He is the author of four prior books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. He is also the author of The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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