In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Ambition

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • Political Ambition and Office Behavior
  • Ambition and Candidate Emergence
  • Nascent Political Ambition
  • Race and Political Ambition

Political Science Political Ambition
Karen Shafer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 February 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 February 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0238


Political ambition typically means the desire for officeholders to run for a higher office or for those who do not hold office the desire to run. Having ambition is the precursor to exercising ambition; that is, actually running for office. The most established thread in the political ambition literature concerns the concept of progressive ambition. Progressive political ambition focuses on current officeholders and assumes that once an individual has achieved an elected position, he or she will aspire to a higher office. This literature analyzes both the personal and contextual factors that shape progressive ambition and motivate an individual actually to run for the higher office. Another theme relates to how officeholders with progressive ambition behave differently in their current positions compared to those who do not have progressive ambition. Candidate emergence is another thread within the literature on political ambition. Its focus is on when individuals act on their ambition and become candidates for higher office. Nascent political ambition, another thread in the literature, considers why and when individuals decide to first run for office. Gender is a dominant theme throughout the ambition literature and typically analyzes how the difference in progressive or nascent political ambition helps to explain the gender disparity among elected officials. While not as prevalent as research on gender, another line of literature addresses race and political ambition. Much of the literature on political ambition is about the United States, reflecting the importance of self-selection in the candidate recruitment process. However, there is a growing body of literature regarding political ambition in other regions of the world.

Foundational Works

The concept of political ambition was developed at a time of increased professionalization for elected officeholders. Schlesinger 1966 provides the foundational work for the concept of political ambition and the motivations underlying it. Eulau 1962 first developed the idea of a legislative career and how that impacted behavior. Black 1972 is another seminal work and is the first to introduce a formal cost-benefit model to explain political ambition. Rohde 1979 provides the basis for later studies regarding progressive ambition for sitting members of Congress. Fowler and McClure 1989 provides a similar seminal work considering political ambition and running for Congress. The authors of Herrick and Moore 1983 are among the scholars who have updated Schlesinger’s theory and offer that ambition manifests itself not only in the running for higher office. Maestas, et al. 2006 offers the first revision of progressive ambition and considers strategic and personal factors when running for a higher office. Included in this section is Francis and Kenny 2000 as it is the only current textbook on political ambition. Williams and Lascher 1993 is an edited volume that also provides a good overview of the topic.

  • Black, Gordon. “A Theory of Political Ambition: Career Choices and the Role of Structural Incentives.” American Political Science Review 66 (1972): 144–159.

    DOI: 10.2307/1959283

    Starting from Schlesinger’s work, Black develops a rational choice theory of political ambition. Decision to run for office on two fundamental conditions: the benefits of holding the office must be greater than the costs of obtaining the office as well as be greater than the benefits of some alternative endeavor that could have otherwise been pursued.

  • Eulau, Heinz. “The Legislative Career.” In The Legislative System: Explorations in Legislative Behavior. Edited by John C. Wahlke, Heinz Eulau, William Buchanan, and LeRoy C. Ferguson, 272–280. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1962.

    Focuses on developing the set of conditions which shape a legislator career and include past experiences, current situation, and anticipate future outcomes.

  • Fowler, Linda, and Robert McClure. Political Ambition: Who Decides to Run for Congress. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989.

    Uses a qualitative case study approach to examine a candidate pool in one congressional district with an open seat. Focus is on state legislators and the decision to run for higher office. Emphasis is placed on those who choose not to run as much as those who do as these non-candidates shape the electoral outcomes. Deciding to run for Congress is not only about ambition but having the needed local organizational support for a candidacy.

  • Francis, Wayne L., and Lawrence W. Kenny. Up the Political Ladder: Career Paths in U.S. Politics. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000.

    A textbook treatment of the topic that provides a good overview of how and when an elected official decides to risk their current elected position and run for a higher office. Broadly focused covering local through national office and considers the impact of external issues such as political party or term limits on the decision to run.

  • Herrick, Rebekah, and Michael K. Moore. “Political Ambition’s Effects on Legislative Behavior: Schlesinger’s Typology Reconsidered and Revised.” Journal of Politics 55 (1983): 765–776.

    DOI: 10.2307/2132000

    Finds that members of Congress who have intra-institutional ambition for leadership positions behave differently and are more effective as legislators than those who have progressive ambition. Suggests that progressive ambition needs to be more subtlety defined.

  • Maestas, Cherie D., Sarah Fulton, Sandy Maisel, and Walter J. Stone. “When to Risk It? Institutions, Ambitions, and the Decision to Run for the U.S. House.” American Political Science Review 100 (2006): 195–208.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0003055406062101

    Considers state legislators and examines the factors forming ambition separate from the factors that determine when an individual exercises that ambition by running for higher office. The authors find it is a combination of institutional, personal, and party recruitment that predicts ambition for higher office.

  • Rohde, David W. “Risk Bearing and Progressive Ambition: The Case of the United States House of Representatives.” American Journal of Political Science 23 (1979): 1–26.

    DOI: 10.2307/2110769

    Considers how risk-taking impacts political ambition and finds a positive correlation. Members of the House of Representatives are more likely to run for senator than governor when the probability of winning is higher, and if it is a small state.

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

    Contends that lower level elected officials will act in a way consistent with their goals of obtaining higher office. These goals are to address both their current constituency and their future constituency.

  • Williams, Shirley, and Edward L. Lascher. Ambition and Beyond: Career Paths of American Politicians. Berkeley: Institute of Governmental Studies Press, University of California, Berkeley, 1993.

    An edited volume on all facets of the legislative career. Several chapters address the decision to run while others review careers at the local, state, or national levels. The review chapter by Timothy S. Prinz is the most instructive in providing an overview of the topic.

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