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American University Experts Provide Fresh Insight into Political Ambition

May 29, 2012

In time for the 2012 elections, two American University School of Public Affairs government professors published books that provide important insights into the upcoming elections. Candice Nelson wrote Grant Park: The Democratization of Presidential Elections 1968-2008 (Brookings 2011) and Jennifer Lawless authored Becoming a Candidate: Political Ambition and the Decision to Run for Office (Cambridge 2012). Nelson’s research on how the presidential nomination process has evolved and the degree of participation of ordinary people shows how 40 years has brought greater transparency to presidential politics. Lawless’s research explains why a private citizen makes the leap into the electoral fray and emerges as a candidate.

Grant Park’s 40 Year Long Metamorphosis 1968 - 2008

“This book examines the democratization of the presidential election process through the metaphor of Grant Park,” writes Nelson. Why Grant Park? Because Chicago’s Grant Park was where rioting young people, including African-Americans, protested after being shut out of the 1968 Democratic Convention.

“Beginning in 1972 the nomination process gradually evolved from a convention-dominated one to one in which the majority of delegates are chosen in state primaries,” explains Nelson. The smoke filled backrooms in 1968 gave way to the much more democratic primary system with which Americans are familiar today. In the process, battleground states emerged and debates became part of the new norm.

Millions of people, including young people, minorities, and women, participate in a more transparent process. The best visual evidence came from the 125,000 ebullient people filling Grant Park on November 3, 2008, to celebrate Obama’s victory. These very people were representative of the millions who could play a greater role in choosing their party’s nominee for president, who decades earlier had little chance to participate at all and were literally shut out of the process. Today, technology like the Internet and social media are tools engaging voters in entirely new ways in the process.

In some ways the transparency pendulum is swinging back, especially in terms of super PACs and other campaign finance flaws and changes in voting laws. Looking at the 2012 elections, Nelson concludes, “While the campaign finance system continues to challenge the democratization of presidential elections, the overall picture of presidential elections is one much more democratic than demonstrators faced in Grant Park in the summer of 1968.”

Who Would Ever Run for Office?

In 2012, every seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, one third of seats in the U.S. Senate, and hundreds of thousands of state and local elective positions are up for grabs. In Becoming a Candidate: Political Ambition and the Decision to Run for Office, Lawless examines the dynamics underlying the initial decision to run for office. “The manner in which that initial ambition evolves sets the stage for climbing the political ladder and the quality of representation a public official provides,” writes Lawless. It is not uncommon that today’s school board member is tomorrow’s state legislator or congressional candidate. “This is why it is particularly important to shed light on questions of electoral accountability . . . career ladder politics tends to characterize candidate emergence in the United States,” observes Lawless.

Lawless’ book is based on extensive research she conducted (with Richard L. Fox). In 2001, they surveyed and interviewed nearly 4,000 “eligible candidates” – lawyers, business leaders, educators, and political activists. Seven years later, they resurveyed and interviewed more than 2,000 of them. By leveraging this first ever panel of political ambition, Lawless sheds light on why some accomplished professionals consider running for elected office when many others recoil at the notion. She concludes that ebbs and flows in interest in running for office are driven systematically by minority status, family dynamics, professional status, and political experiences.

One of Lawless’s most important findings concerns gender differences in candidate emergence. “The results provide powerful evidence of a gender gap in political ambition and suggest that prospects for democratic legitimacy and political representation are far more precarious than scholars often assert,” writes Lawless. “Only a combination of profound changes – not only in terms of how women in the eligibility pool perceive themselves, but also in terms of how their professional, political, and personal networks perceive them – can begin to lessen the gender gap in considering a candidacy.”

The last decade has been particularly tumultuous. As Lawless argues, “We have seen the waging of two wars, acrimonious partisan rancor in Washington, one of the most unpopular and polarizing presidents in recent history, two shifts in congressional party control, and the government’s ineffective handling of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.” Moreover, we have seen the election of the first black president of the United States, the ascension of Nancy Pelosi as the first female Speaker of the House, the emergence of Hillary Clinton as the first serious female presidential contender, and the nomination of Sarah Palin as the first female Republican vice presidential candidate. These circumstances, coupled with the backdrop of the 2012 elections, make it hard to imagine a more important time to study questions pertaining to candidate emergence, political ambition, electoral competition, and political accountability.

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