If you are considering getting involved in electoral politics, there are a number of approaches to take. Your local SPUSA can run its own candidates, endorse or support other candidates, and propose referenda. When running candidates directly, you can run as a SPUSA candidate, from a ballot access party, as an independent, for nonpartisan office, or as a write-in candidate. In part, the choice is driven by the goals of the campaign and in part by ballot access considerations. The best choice when running a candidate is to run on the SPUSA ticket. After all, we are members of the SPUSA and we should try to put our party forward. However, there may be other concerns, ranging from existing local arrangements to excessively restrictive elections laws that effectively keep socialists as members of an official party off the ballot.
Ballot access parties are parties other than the Democrats and Republicans that can run candidates during elections. These parties exist in some states but not others because of differing election laws. They vary greatly from place to place, with some maintaining a long-term ballot presence and attracting supporters from political orientations, like the consistently progressive Liberty Union Party of Vermont, while others last for only a single election cycle. These parties can provide increased exposure as their primaries may be covered locally while just nominees are covered in the general election. An additional benefit of ballot access parties is that they often have much easier ballot access than for a party with no regular ballot access in the state. Running in a ballot access party is less beneficial because it may be harder to spread the Socialist Party message when identifying under a different party name.
Many states have no practical option for establishing a new political party, so anyone not affiliated with the Democrats or Republicans must run as an independent. This is similar to running with ballot access, except that there is no party label and no party primary. This requires more effort, and more resources than running as a socialist in order to get out the word. Running as an independent is in many ways like starting from scratch in every election.
Over 80 percent of major U.S. cities hold nonpartisan elections for local office including city council and mayoral races. This means candidates do not affiliate officially with any party, and just the candidates’ names are listed on the ballot. This has the advantage equal for all candidates on the ballot. However, incumbent advantage and name recognition is key in nonpartisan races, so they too require lots of resources and effort to establish a competitive candidate.
The rules in many places are too restrictive for SPUSA candidates to get onto the ballot during a particular race, though a write-in campaign is always an option to be considered. This may be an excellent choice on the local level for initial campaigns as it requires comparatively few resources. However, the rules are often very technical, and write-in votes are some of the easiest to disqualify during the final tally. In addition, much of the effort in a write-in campaign may need to be dedicated to alerting supporters to the rules. Even so, this may be an excellent part of a campaign that is primarily educational and oriented towards gathering dedicated supporters to the party.
While running a candidate for office is exciting and what most see as the as most important part of electoral politics, it is not the only option. The party can give endorsements and offer support to allies with similar politics or who have common interests. The Non-Partisan League was founded in 1915 in North Dakota by former SPA organizer Arthur Townley, who found that the Socialist Party program was more popular than the party itself. The League used endorsements of any candidate who agreed to their program. Although the League ultimately merged with the Democratic Party, it was instrumental in influencing sympathetic politicians to enact anti-corruption measures, labor reforms, and create the only state-owned bank in the U.S.
As a final thought, keeping in mind that the ultimate goal is not the victory of single candidates nor leaders, but to educate and inspire the people to liberate themselves, I offer the words of Eugene Debs:
I am not a Labor Leader. I do not want you to follow me or anyone else; if you are looking for a Moses to lead you out of this capitalist wilderness, you will stay right where you are. I would not lead you into the promised land if I could, because if I led you in, someone else would lead you out. You must use your heads as well as your hands, and get yourself out of your present condition.