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To Run or Not to Run for Office: Explaining Nascent Political Ambition


  • For comments on previous versions of this article, we thank Scott Allard, Mo Fiorina, Linda Fowler, Amy Gangl, Kent Jennings, Terry Moe, Zoe Oxley, Wendy Schiller, Walt Stone, and Sean Theriault. We are grateful to the Carrie Chapman Catt Center, the Center for American Women and Politics, the Stanford Institute for the Quantitative Study of Society, Union College, and Stanford University for providing the funding to carry out the survey on which our results are based.

Richard L. Fox is associate professor of political science, Union College, Schenectady, NY 12308 ( Jennifer L. Lawless is assistant professor of political science, Brown University, Prospect House, Box 1844, Providence, RI 02912 (


In this article, we develop the concept of nascent political ambition and offer the first empirical assessment of potential candidates' initial interest in seeking elective office. Our analysis is based on the Citizen Political Ambition Study—our national survey of nearly 3,800 individuals in the four professions that most frequently precede a career in politics. We find that a general sense of efficacy as a candidate, as well as a politicized upbringing, motivate well-situated potential candidates' inclinations to run for office. Alternatively, status as a member of a group historically excluded from politics depresses the likelihood of considering a candidacy. These findings shed light not only on the prospects for political representation and democratic legitimacy in the United States, but also the means by which to study candidate emergence and conceptualize political ambition.