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When to Risk It? Institutions, Ambitions, and the Decision to Run for the U.S. House


The health of any democratic system depends on political ambition to generate a steady supply of quality candidates for office. Because most models of candidate entry assume ambition rather than model it, previous research fails to understand its roots in individual and institutional characteristics. We develop a two-stage model of progressive behavior that distinguishes between the formation of ambition for higher office and the decision to enter a particular race. Using data from a survey of state legislators, we demonstrate that the intrinsic costs and benefits associated with running for and holding higher office shape ambitions but do not influence the decision to run. For progressively ambitious legislators, the second-stage decision is a strategic choice about when to run rather than whether to run. Our research highlights how institutional characteristics that foster progressive ambition also increase the likelihood that national or local political conditions will be translated into meaningful choices at the ballot box.

Corresponding author
Cherie D. Maestas is Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science, 531 Bellamy Building, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL 32306 (
Sarah Fulton, ABD, Department of Political Science, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA 95616 (
L. Sandy Maisel is Professor, Department of Government, Colby College, Waterville, Maine 04901 (
Walter J. Stone is Professor, Department of Political Science, University of California, Davis, Davis, CA 95616 (
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American Political Science Review
  • ISSN: 0003-0554
  • EISSN: 1537-5943
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