restricted access 3 Theories of Candidacy
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CHAPTER 3 Theories of Candidacy ... politicians are both goal-seeking and situation-interpreting individuals. -Richard F. Fenno, Jr. If congressional candidates stand at the confluence of the broad political trends noted in the previous chapter, it remains to be seen how they act as causal agents in the American polity. In some respects, candidates seem to drive the electoral and institutional changes that have occurred in Congress over many generations; in other respects, they seem to act strategically in seizing opportunities available within the political system. In still other respects, candidates seem unwitting players in a process they only dimly perceive. Nowhere is their ambiguous status-agent, opportunist, or pawn-more evident than in the theoretical literature on recruitment. There has never been a single theory of candidacy but a set of theories all bent on explaining different aspects of the selection of public officials. Roughly speaking, the earliest conceptualization of candidacy was sociological in orientation, and its primary purpose was tracing the origin of political elites and the values they imposed on the rest of society. Somewhat later came the psychological approach to office seeking, with its concern for how the unconscious drives and motivations of political leaders affected their behavior in office. The next development was process oriented, and its preoccupation was competition among groups for political power, with particular emphasis on parties as agents of leadership development. The subsequent phase was goal directed, and its primary objective was explaining the strategic calculations of individual candidates. The most recent development is rule based, and its intent is to demonstrate how rational decision making about ambition is constrained by political institutions. Each tradition has looked at the consequences of candidacy quite differently; each has addressed the problem of defining the pool of eligibles in its own way; and each has treated the interactive effects 41 42 Candidates, Congress, and the American Democracy among candidates, elites, events, and structures with varying degrees of emphasis. However, what has been missing from the theoretical work on candidacy is an integration of microlevel behavior and macrolevel phenomena. Congressional candidates are not only ambitious individuals operating in a particular political environment but also products of the existing social and institutional order, yet scholars have tended to address either one side or the other-either the individual candidacies or the social and institutional constraints-but seldom to mesh the two. As Prewitt (1970) noted, scholars have attempted to deduce the nature of structural influences by examining the individuals who get elected, or they have drawn conclusions about candidates from studying political rules and organizations. His conclusion, still valid today, is that "political recruitment theory often suffers from being either too institutional or too individual. ... [Both are useful], but singly they lead to misplaced inference" (1970, 15). More important, theorizing about candidacy has most often and most effectively addressed political careers-the advancement from one office to another. These are theories of progressive ambition that take the desire and eligibility for public office as givens. They concentrate on how individual politicians assess and manipulate the strategic aspects of winning and losing various types of positions, but they have little to say about where candidates come from and what factors, besides those associated with victory, affect potential office seekers' motivations and prospects. What should a more comprehensive theory of candidacy look like? First, it should identify the eligible contestants within the population at large and explain why those prospective candidates who eventually run are different from those who do not. Second, it should account for the interactions among candidates and political elites as they occur within varying local and national contexts. Third, it should be dynamic to allow for changing expectations and circumstances that move politicians in and out of the candidate pool. The task of the theorist, then, is to reconcile the goal-seeking behavior of prospective candidates with the relevant socioeconomic and institutional constraints that govern their emergence and determine their success. Existing theories have seldom reached so broadly across the spectrum of factors influencing candidacy; nevertheless, we can learn a great deal from examining the various scholarly traditions that have developed to explain legislative recruitment. Each theoretical paradigm has adopted a particular definition of recruitment, which in turn has dictated the choice of dependent and independent variables; each has set particular boundaries that define the onset, prosecution, and Theories of Candidacy 43 termination of candidacy; and each has made different judgments about which rules, actors, and events are relevant to office seeking. Table 3...


Subject Headings

  • Political participation -- United States.
  • Politics, Practical -- United States.
  • Political campaigns -- United States.
  • Political culture -- United States.
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