From a Target-focused Power Analysis to a Governing Power Analysis

In our campaigning, we are used to doing power analyses to identify a target and to map the relationships that influence that target. This tool is essential to developing a winning campaign strategy, but to really understand who governs, we need to identify the social forces that give our targets their power in the first place. We need to learn more about who is standing next to them, who is cheering them on and whose direct or indirect influence shapes the context for the decisions the target makes. 

The work of researching and analyzing who governs in your state is a critical step in building strategic alignment with your allies. If there is disagreement about who your opponents are and how they operate, it will be impossible to create strategies to win campaigns, let alone to govern. On the other hand, if we have a shared analysis, we can begin the work of exercising our power more effectively today in order to change what is politically possible tomorrow. 

The two fundamental questions of a governing power analysis are: “Who sets the agenda?” and “Who benefits from it?” While the governor, a senator or another public figure might serve as the face of that agenda, we want to know who put them in office to begin with, and what those people’s goals are. In some states, it might be a set of powerful CEOs who direct the work of think tanks or political action committees. In other states, it might be a major employer that drives government’s decisions around tax policy and environmental regulation. Either way, the forces that put elected leaders into office always do so to advance or protect their self-interest. We need to understand who those forces are, what infrastructure they use and what they ultimately want. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to conducting a governing power analysis. But in order to better understand their political terrain, organizers can ask themselves questions about who holds extreme wealth in their state and how those people and corporations are connected to each other. What think tanks, advocacy groups and political entities do they fund? What can you understand about the extremely wealthy by looking at their agendas? This tool can also map out who is hurt by the exploitation that the concentrated wealth in their state requires, especially as workers and consumers across the dominant sectors of their state’s economy. 

A governing power analysis asks us to understand the key elements of our opponents’ agenda, to examine the forces on the left and the right that could wield greater power in our state if they were organized and aligned, and to identify the potential wedges between our opponents that could divide and weaken them. And it helps us get clearer on the key demographics we will need to focus our organizing and legislative efforts on if we are going to wield a greater level of control over state policy. 

See case study: Rise Up Colorado: From a Target-Focused Power Analysis to a Governing Power Analysis

Case Study: Rise Up Colorado: From a Target-Focused Power Analysis to a Governing Power Analysis

Colorado’s political landscape has shifted significantly in the last 20 years. In the early 2000s, Colorado was dependably red. By 2008, Barack Obama had won the state and Democrats had won control of the state general assembly and the governorship. Although Democrats have strengthened their control over all three branches of Colorado’s state legislature in the years since, the power of corporations and the super-wealthy has remained the driving force of state politics. The work that Rise Up Colorado has done in response, to identify the social forces that truly govern the state, points to a new way to approach research and analysis in our fights.

Rise Up Colorado is an alignment table that has been steadily building relationships among some of Colorado’s strongest power-building organizations since its formation in 2016. Its current membership includes several community organizations and their associated c4 organizations: Together Colorado (an affiliate of Faith in Action), Movimiento Poder (a community organization rooted in Denver’s working class Latinx communities), United for a New Economy (an affiliate of PowerSwitch and Center for Popular Democracy), Colorado People’s Action (an affiliate of People’s Action), and 9to5 Colorado. The alignment also includes SEIU Local 105, Colorado WINS, Colorado Education Association, Colorado AFL-CIO, and the Colorado Working Families Party. 

In 2021, Grassroots Power Project launched a Long Term Agenda process with Rise Up CO to help its member groups develop shared strategy more effectively. This meant the Rise Up CO groups first had to undertake a governing power analysis that could help them better understand the forces they were up against and what they would need to do to defeat them. 

The governing power analysis that Rise Up CO conducted was different from a typical target-focused analysis in that it went beyond the question of “which party is in control?” or “which target has the power to give us what we want?” To build a strategy that could effectively weaken and divide their opposition, the Rise Up CO groups knew they would need to learn much more about the agendas of the people and institutions who surrounded, influenced and funded their targets. 

In collaboration with Jim Freeman of the Social Movement Support Lab at the University of Denver, the groups devised these research questions: 

  • Who holds extreme wealth in Colorado, including individuals, corporations and large employers?
  • How are the extremely wealthy connected to each other? What business, political and cultural institutions do they influence or control?
  • What are the dominant sectors of Colorado’s economy? What constituencies are impacted by these sectors as workers or consumers, and what are their geographic concentrations?
  • What is the overall composition of the Colorado General Assembly (House, Senate and Leadership) both along partisan lines as well as intra-party factions within each major party? What are the forces and major interests that shape the makeup of state government? Who are major political donors, and which parties and candidates are those donors affiliated with? How do demographics and political interests intersect with state geography/legislative districts in ways that can chart a path toward shifting governing power?
  • What are the key elements of the overall political and ideological agenda of Colorado’s ultra-wealthy forces, and what are their policy priorities in the current period?

Researchers used these questions to identify the wealthiest donors and corporations in the state and to examine how they moved their money through various philanthropic foundations and political entities. They found that the super-wealthy had invested in six key corporate, conservative organizations—Colorado Chamber of Commerce, the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, Colorado Concern, Colorado Business Roundtable, Colorado Succeeds and the Common Sense Institute. Rise Up decided to focus its research on these organizations and on the key fights in which these organizations were engaged. They found that the organizations were working to shape policy around a wide range of issues that included labor, education, criminal justice, environment and economic justice.

Researchers also analyzed the Colorado general assembly, including the demographics and voting trends of each member district. They highlighted districts that were poised to shift from either “toss up” to “light blue” or from “light blue” to “dark blue” in upcoming elections. This helped them to identify the districts that might be prime places for Rise Up to consolidate working class, multi-racial voting blocs, and to launch primary election battles against corporate-aligned Democrats. 

One piece of the research that is not yet complete is a more nuanced analysis of state legislators that can help Rise Up differentiate between progressive Democrats, corporate Democrats, corporate Republicans, and MAGA Republicans. This research will require both an examination of legislative votes and a subjective assessment of legislators by groups on the ground. 

Crucially, Rise Up has not simply gathered information about how power in the state is organized; it is making a concrete plan to apply it. As a next step, Rise Up is mapping out stepping stone campaigns that can create the conditions for a more favorable political landscape that pushes back on corporate power. This includes a possible state revenue ballot question in 2024. 

The governing power analysis that the Rise Up groups conducted clarified that the corporate elite is the primary opposition that Rise Up must work together to combat if they are going to advance their agenda in Colorado. The analysis also provided greater insight into what working people’s organizations must do if they are going to win the power they need to set the agenda.