UMass Donahue Institute  
Candidate Emergence Study

Running for the state legislature is not a viable choice for most Americans, even for those interested in serving. The pay is typically low and the time commitments even in part-time legislatures often compel citizens to leave their current employment. Campaigning for office may be the biggest obstacle of all. The increasing cost and effort to raise money for political campaigns potentially may deter all but the financially well-connected and wealthy from running. Given these costs, it is not surprising that many seats for state legislature go uncontested. In the 2004 elections, 36% of all lower house seats in American legislatures had no challenger. In many more races, the contest was lopsided because serious candidates did not emerge and others were simply under-funded.

Those citizens that do run tend to be wealthier, more educated and older than the rest of the population. In a study of state legislative challengers conducted during the 1998 elections, more than one-quarter reported incomes greater than $90,000, and well over half claimed incomes greater than $50,000. Additionally, more than 75% have attended college and 50% hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Gender and race may also relevant determinants of who runs for office. Only 22% of the major party candidates were women, less than 5% African-American, and just 1% Hispanic.

Running for office is a demanding form of political participation, but the health of American democracy depends on the willingness of some citizens to declare their candidacy. Indeed, the dearth of candidates and lack of diversity have significant implications for electoral competition, political representation and political accountability. Given that electoral competition is an essential mechanism for selecting political leaders and ensuring accountability, these trends do not bode well for the health of American democracy. Electoral competition not only spurs accountability, it enhances voter interest and turnout. Moreover, diversity of candidates matters too. When minority candidates run for office they tend to attract additional voters from minority communities. For all these reasons, it is critical to explore factors that influence candidate emergence.

Previous research has focused on how candidates emerge in congressional elections, demonstrating that many come from the ranks of state legislatures. But there has been little research on how candidates emerge in state legislatures. Since state legislatures appear to be the training ground for future national leadership, it is critical to understand the obstacles that deter potential leaders from running for the statehouse. If individuals lack the opportunity to run at the grassroots level – the proverbial “farm system” – they may never seek higher elective office. While previous research has analyzed how and why non-incumbents choose to run for state legislature, it has not considered potential candidates who chose not to run. This project seeks to understand why some citizens who are potentially good candidates ultimately refrain from running. In particular, this project focuses on the extent to which the necessity of raising money deters potential candidates. Research on congressional elections demonstrates that, by far, the most oft cited factor in potential candidates’ thinking about running for the US House is having to raise large amounts of money to fund their campaign.

For more information, please contact:

Raymond J. La Raja
Associate Professor
Department of Political Science

Voice Phone Number: (413) 545-6182
Fax Phone Number: (413) 545-3349
E-mail: laraja@polsci.umass.edu

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