I’m puttin’ on my top hat,
Tyin’ up my white tie,
Brushin’ off my tails.

– Fred Astaire, Top Hat

Have you heard of the “coattails effect” in politics? It’s where voters who arrive at the polls in full tuxedo and ballgown are statistically more likely to have their desired candidates win. Voters who burst into song and dance upon completing their ballot are likely to receive personalized thank-you notes from their candidates, not to mention the admiration of their fellow voters.

Kidding! Sadly. (Would that life were a musical.) In fact, the “coattails” or “down-ballot” effect is a phenomenon whereby voters who vote for a top-ticket political candidate end up voting for down-ballot candidates of the same party. Makes sense, right? The effect has been documented throughout all levels of elections: a voter who comes out to vote for their Presidential choice is more likely to vote for their party’s Congressional candidates as well; a voter who arrives at their polling place to support their state-legislative candidate may end up voting for the city-council member of the same party. It’s why the party of a victorious top-ticket candidate will likely win many lower-ticket seats as well, as members of the same party are swept into office on the victor’s “coattails.”

The “reverse coattails” effect, whereby enthusiasm for lower-level candidates drives voter turnout, is equally real. Reverse Coattails Effect 2016–2020, published in November 2021 by the progressive groups For Our Future and Run For Something, dissects election data in Florida, Georgia, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin, and finds that Democrats do better overall when they take some risks in down-ballot, state-legislative races.

The study’s conclusion: “Democrats contesting state legislative seats induces [sic] a small but meaningful increase in top-of-the-ticket Democratic vote-share.” The study specifically cites Georgia, where several Democrats challenged deep-red state-legislative incumbents in the 2022 election; as expected, the challengers lost, but their mere presence in the race excited voters and spurred Democratic turnout, creating the potentially “decisive” factor in Joe Biden’s victory in the state. Biden rode to victory on down-ballot candidates’ coattails, even though the candidates themselves didn’t win their races.

In the words of NYT reporter Isabella Grullon Paz, “It was lower-level candidates running in nearly hopeless situations — red districts that Democrats had traditionally considered no-win, low-to-no-investment territory — who helped the national or statewide figures atop the ballot, instead of down-ballot candidates benefiting from a popular national candidate of the same party.”

“Democrats should run everywhere when there is an important statewide election,” conclude the study’s authors. “While Democratic candidates running in districts that would be otherwise uncontested Republican races may not win those seats, they may provide an important vote share bump in close statewide contests (POTUS, Senate, Governor).” At all levels, popular political candidates drive voter turnout for their party.

The reverse-coattails effect is going to be particularly critical this year, when our capable President (CHIPs Act, Infrastructure Act, gun-safety legislation, 14 million jobs created) will be running for reelection against a backdrop of MAGA lies, an Israeli-Palestinian nightmare, a saboteur Congress, and God knows what else coming down the pike, never mind a rapist/traitor/cult-leader opponent who’s promising full fascism ahead. Already, some voters are throwing in the political towel and, in an act of nausea and self-preservation, disengaging from national politics entirely.

It’s understandable. It’s also unacceptable. This year of all years, we must get voters to the polls. It’s why Sister District Project works so hard to identify excellent progressive candidates in close, strategically chosen races, and why we support grassroots organizations working to get out the vote in our chosen states. If we and our partners can get voters excited about their state-legislative candidates and make sure they get to the polls, that’s more voters likely to vote up-ticket for President as well.

You’re welcome, Joe. Happy Presidents’ Day!

— Juliet Eastland

Sister District Project MA&RI gives the lowdown on why state-level races are so vital to the nation’s health. SDP helps top-notch Democratic candidates win strategically important state elections across the country, and works to expand civic engagement. Originally published here