Political Science Candidate Emergence and Recruitment
Cherie Maestas, Mary Jo Shepherd
  • LAST REVIEWED: 10 March 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0199


High-quality candidates for office are an essential ingredient for an effective democracy. At the most basic level, democracy is strongest when citizens have quality choices at the ballot box. However, candidate emergence provides an essential ingredient in a less obvious way. Strategic candidate emergence serves as a check in a democracy, as ambitious candidates keep a close eye on their prospects of winning—prospects that change in response to incumbent missteps, representation gaps, or shifts in economic or political conditions. This article is designed to provide an overview of the major foundational studies that explore the causes and consequences of candidacies in the United States and beyond. The earliest foundational research into candidate emergence focused first on the institutional structures that defined opportunities for office—a “political career ladder” created by incentives and opportunities for individuals to exercise their political ambitions—and later on developing formal models to explain candidate entry decisions. Candidates, scholars have argued, calculate an “expected utility model” in which they estimate the benefits they would receive from winning office, assess their chances of winning, and balance this against the costs of running. If the expected benefits outweigh the personal and financial costs associated with running, candidates enter the race. The canonical model directs scholarly attention toward understanding the institutional and contextual factors that shape candidates’ chances of winning and costs of running. As the section on Strategic Factors and Candidate Emergence shows, this approach has yielded a bounty of research. However, other scholars note that the calculations for entering a race only arise among those that already hold some level of ambition for political office. Ambition arises from a variety of sources related to socialization and political recruitment. The sections on Ambition for Office and Candidate Recruitment by Political Gatekeepers detail this literature. Both sections highlight gaps in ambition and representation of minorities and women, and many studies have sought to understand the institutional and sociopolitical sources of such gaps (see Gender, Candidate Recruitment, Emergence, and Success and Race, Ambition, and Candidate Emergence). Candidacies matter greatly for democratic outcomes, both in terms of creating a mechanism for democratic accountability for parties in office, the demographic biases in legislative institutions, and for how ambitions shape political choices among office holders (see Consequences of Ambition and Candidate Emergence for Political Accountability; Ambition, Candidate Emergence, and Representative Behavior in Office; and Demand and Supply Explanations for Biases in Group Representation). The section Data Sources on Candidates and Candidate Emergence highlights sources of election data and survey data that scholars might use to study candidacies in the US context.

Foundational Studies

These works were selected to give readers an overview of the core theories and case studies that motivated later scholarship in the field. At the aggregate level, Jacobson and Kernell 1983 was the first work to articulate how strategic candidate entry creates a mechanism for democratic accountability as pools of ambitious, high-quality potential candidates respond to changing political and economic tides. At the individual level, Schlesinger 1966 was the first to define a theory of political ambition linking personal ambition to a “political opportunity structure”—a hierarchy of offices through which officeholders progress from local or state offices to national office—and to show how opportunity structures and party systems work in tandem to encourage different types of ambition. Black 1972 and Rohde 1979 drew upon Schlesinger’s insights to formalize an individual-level model of progressive ambition rooted in rational choice expected utility theory. Black 1972 provided the first formalization a “rational office-seeker model” in which potential candidates take into account the probability of winning higher office, the benefits associated with holding the office, and the costs of obtaining the office. Rohde 1979 brought additional precision to the expected utility model in order to predict which US House members would seek higher office. These models have defined much of the field of study by directing scholarly attention to how institutions and electoral context shape the factors considered by potential candidates (see Strategic Factors and Candidate Emergence and Factors that Influence the Financial and Personal Costs of Running for Office). Several foundational works, such as Fowler and McClure 1990 and Kazee 1994, highlighted the importance of studying qualified individuals who chose not to run to better understand how contextual, personal, and institutional factors shaped decisions to run. Both books use a systematic case-study approach with extensive interviews. While both find support for the factors included in the rational choice model, they also highlight the highly personal intrinsic costs and benefits and biases of subjective perceptions in situations of uncertainty. Both paint a picture of self-starting candidates who are highly sensitive to their perceptions of their chances of winning (partly determined by their perceptions of support from interests, parties, and their families), and who express concerns about the challenges of running a campaign. Most studies focus on officeholders, but Canon 1990 was the first book to explicitly explore the causes and consequences of amateurs running for office. Moncrief, et al. 2001 serves as the foundational work in understanding how institutions and state-level context interact to shape the recruitment and emergence of state legislative candidates. For a rich overview of the foundational literature, see Fowler 1993.

  • Black, Gordon S. “A Theory of Political Ambition: Career Choices and the Role of Structural Incentives.” American Political Science Review 66.1 (1972): 144–155.

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    Original articulation of the “rational office-seeker” where running for office occurs when the probability of winning times the benefits of office exceeds the costs of obtaining office. Ties costs of running and chances of winning to political structure. Tests theory using data from city council members in San Francisco.

  • Canon, David T. Actors, Athletes, and Astronauts: Political Amateurs in the United States Congress. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

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    First comprehensive study of amateur candidates. Develops a typology of amateurism that forms the bases of subsequent theoretical explanations of the decision to run for office. This study offers a counterpoint to traditional ambition theory that focuses exclusively on progressive ambition among officeholders.

  • Fowler, Linda L. Candidates, Congress, and the American Democracy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993.

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    Rich overview of the importance of candidates for democratic representation in the United States, highlighting factors that influence why individuals run for Congress. Chapter 3 provides and especially insightful review of the seminal literature in this research area.

  • Fowler, Linda L., and Robert D. McClure. Political Ambition: Who Decides to Run for Congress. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1990.

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    Detailed case study of potential candidates in a single district (NY-30) provides insights that motivated subsequent studies in the field. Focus is on “unseen candidates” who never emerged. Emphasizes personal costs of running, the intersection of ambition and recruitment, informal advisors, and biases in assessing the political environment.

  • Jacobson, Gary C., and Samuel Kernell. Strategy and Choice in Congressional Elections. 2d ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983.

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    Foundational work showing evidence that representation occurs through the strategic entry choices of candidates rather than retrospective assessments by voters. As national economic and political tides shift, strategic quality candidates emerge to run vigorous campaigns and draw votes away from incumbents in office.

  • Kazee, Thomas A. Who Runs for Congress: Ambition, Context and Candidate Emergence. Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1994.

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    Develops a general framework for studying candidate emergence in US House districts using systematic case studies and interview techniques. Notable for the inclusion of non-officeholders. Highlights how contextual and personal considerations interact to shape potential candidate decisions. Richly detailed comparison of decision making in districts representing different electoral contexts.

  • Moncrief, Gary F., Peverill Squire, and Malcolm E. Jewell. Who Runs for the Legislature? Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2001.

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    First in-depth analysis of candidate recruitment and emergence in state legislatures. Examines the state-level factors that influence candidate entry, including party recruitment, personal and financial costs of running, electoral rules, and competition. Combines quantitative evidence with qualitative case studies.

  • Rohde, David. “Risk Bearing and Progressive Ambition: The Case of Members of the United States House of Representatives.” American Journal of Political Science 23.1 (1979): 1–26.

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    Brings precision to Black’s expected utility model by focusing only on progressive ambition where the decision process requires comparison between the expected utilities of the current office and the higher office. Applies model to US House members to predict whether they ran for Senate or governorship.

  • Schlesinger, Joseph A. Ambition and Politics: Political Careers in the United States. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1966.

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    Seminal work. Defines three types of ambition: progressive ambition for higher office, static ambition to retain same office, and discrete ambition to serve a limited term and return to private life and shows how each relates to the “political opportunity structure”—the institutional hierarchy of political offices and electoral opportunities.

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