Gaining and Losing Interest in Running for Public Office: Developing the Concept of Dynamic Political Ambition

45 Pages Posted: 13 Aug 2009 Last revised: 30 Sep 2014

See all articles by Jennifer L. Lawless

Jennifer L. Lawless

American University

Richard L. Fox

Loyola Marymount University

Date Written: 2009


In this article, we propose the concept of dynamic ambition, the notion that myriad factors work systematically to encourage and suppress political ambition among potential candidates. We base our results on the Citizen Political Ambition Panel Study, our national survey of almost 3,800 “potential candidates” in 2001 and a second survey of more than 2,000 of these same individuals in 2008. This panel study – the only one ever to focus on political ambition – allows for the first empirical assessment of the manner in which potential candidates gain and lose interest in running for office over time. Contrary to much of the literature’s characterization of ambition as static or fixed, the results of our analysis reveal that political ambition fluctuates widely; we uncover significant individual-level shifts in interest in running for all levels of office over the course of seven years. These fluctuations tend not to result from changes in the traditional gauges of political participation and strategic assessments of the political opportunity structure. Rather, shifts in levels of external and internal political efficacy account for much of the variation in levels of political ambition over time. Changes in patterns of political recruitment, as well as in personal and professional circumstances, also contribute to the likelihood that potential candidates will gain or lose interest in seeking elective office. Together, these findings suggest that political ambition is a volatile commodity and that a complete understanding of candidate emergence must incorporate its dynamic nature.

Suggested Citation

Lawless, Jennifer L. and Fox, Richard L., Gaining and Losing Interest in Running for Public Office: Developing the Concept of Dynamic Political Ambition (2009). APSA 2009 Toronto Meeting Paper, Available at SSRN:

Jennifer L. Lawless (Contact Author)

American University ( email )

4400 Massachusetts Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20016
United States

Richard L. Fox

Loyola Marymount University ( email )

7900 Loyola Boulevard
Los Angeles, CA 90045
United States

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