Explaining the Decision to Run for Congress

Why do candidates decide to run for higher political office? New research conducted by political scientists demonstrates that entry decisions by candidates are more complex than previously understood, and that “opportunity alone is insufficient to stimulate ambition for higher office.” Given that the health of democracies depends on ambition to generate quality candidates for higher office, this study adds to our knowledge of this phenomenon while presenting new models for understanding its inherent processes.

The authors, Cherie Maestas (Florida State University), Sarah Fulton (University of California, Davis), L. Sandy Maisel (Colby College), and Walter J. Stone (University of California, Davis), develop a two stage model and test it with data drawn from a survey of 874 state legislators whose districts overlap with 200 U.S. House districts in 41 states. It is one of the few such studies to directly test its hypotheses with firsthand data. The results of the research appear in an article entitled “When to Risk It? Institutions, Ambitions, and the Decision to Run for the U.S. House,” published in the May issue of the American Political Science Review, a journal of the American Political Science Association. It is available online at /imgtest/APSRMay06Maestas_et_al.pdf.

The authors significantly revise existing methods of explaining decisions by lower-office holders to run for higher office. First, they distinguish between ambition formation and the decision to run itself, positing and finding that “progressive ambition” exists prior to a decision to run in a particular race. This distinction is important, the authors observe, because “the factors influencing the formation of ambition are fundamentally different from those driving the decision to run.” In turn, the likelihood of entering a particular race depends on multiple calculations–including the long-run chances of winning, the marginal expected gain from the target office, and the marginal costs of running. The real strategic choice made by ambitious candidates, therefore, is not about whether to run as is widely assumed but rather about when to run.

Second, the authors distinguish between candidates who hold the same type of lower office, specifically, such as state legislators. They do so contrary to most scholars of congressional elections, who do distinguish between office holders and non-office holders but generally assume that “state legislators in professional and nonprofessional institutions respond identically to changes in the competitive environment.” The authors assert “there is reason to believe that the…experiences…and resources associated with serving in professional legislatures result in members developing different skills and career goals.” When professional legislators do decide to run, the study finds, “they are more successful than their counterparts from less professional legislatures at raising money and gaining votes.” In addition, professional legislators in lower offices are “more nimble in deploying those skills and resources when an opportunity arises.”

This research speaks directly to the question of representation in the U.S. political system. The study ends with several specific conclusions. First, “professionalism enhances accountability in U.S. House campaigns by increasing the odds that a strong challenger will emerge from the state legislature when voters become dissatisfied with the status quo.” Second, “ambition, in conjunction with lower office conditions, creates incentives for responsiveness in a multilevel electoral system.” Third, “increasing the pool of candidates in professional institutions enhances the chance of well-prepared successors to current members of Congress.” Fourth, “states that allow legislator salary to erode, limit legislators’ terms in office, or reduce legislative resources may become less attractive to ambitious members.” Finally, the authors conclude that while “the concept of citizen-legislator may be popular with voters,” these findings “show that the most desirable offices stimulate ambitions and create potential candidates better able to hold U.S. House members accountable.”


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