By Eric S. Heberlig (University of North Carolina, Charlotte)
It seems straightforward that political advancement would be based on politicians’ accomplishments in office. Voters should want to reward politicians who have demonstrated their competence in office.
Apart from the effects of the economy and war on presidential campaigns, there has been little direct examination of whether, and if so how, specific performance in office is related to politicians’ career decisions. Part of the reason for this dearth of research is that voters are generally thought to have very little knowledge, beyond party identification and name recognition, about most politicians. This is particularly true for local offices which typically do not focus on divisive issues that draw intense media coverage and typically do not involve substantial campaign spending.
Nevertheless, if politicians are interested in seeking other (higher) offices—and we generally assume that they are—we would expect that have accomplishments to tout to voters would be a core part of the decision to run. At the least, an ambitious politician would want to time his or her decision to run based in part of have recent accomplishments to include in his or her message to voters.
To examine the effects of accomplishments on political careers, we examine the career decisions of big city mayors from 1992 through 2012. As executives, they are more visible than most legislators and easier to hold accountable for government performance. And the number of mayors over twenty years gives us the ability to parse how changes in the economy, crime, and so on, as well as personal characteristics (such as age and tenure) and opportunities in the political environment (such as open seats) combine to increase the probabilities that mayors will seek other offices, seek reelection, or retire.
We find that two types of accomplishments increase the probability that mayors will seek other offices: decreasing crime and hosting a presidential nominating convention. Fighting crime, of course, is a core responsibility of city government and a visceral issue for voters. So mayors who can claim to be successful crime fighters are more likely to take a risk to seek another office. Likewise, recruiting and hosting a presidential nomination convention puts the mayor in a sustained media spotlight (locally, nationally, and internationally), and puts them in contact with many donors to raise funds for their city’s Host Committee. This process leads them believe they have the experiences and access to resources that would help them advance. In contrast, our evidence shows that a city’s population growth, income growth, and hosting of other mega-events (such as the Super Bowl or other major sporting events) do not affect mayors’ career decisions.
Only fighting crime successfully increased the probability that mayors win reelection and none of the accomplishments are related to whether they succeed in their quest for higher office. This is likely due to the fact that election outcomes are dependent on more than one candidate’s resume. Elections depend on the opponent’s experience and accomplishments, the national economy and political environment, and voter’s willingness to consider qualifications other than party identification and name recognition. It is also likely that accomplishments that are seen as unique to big-city environments do not resonate with voters outside the city. So having a record of short-term accomplishment increases the probability that the mayor will decide that the time is now to run, but it is apparently not sufficient to outweigh all the other elements of the choice that voters consider.
Eric S. Heberlig (Ph.D. The Ohio State University, 1997) is Professor of Political Science and Public Administration at the University of North Carolina Charlotte. He has published four books and numerous articles on political parties, Congress, and campaign finance. A book expanding on the topic of this article, American Cities and the Politics of Party Conventions, is forthcoming from SUNY Albany Press. Congressional Parties, Institutional Ambition, and the Financing of Majority Control won the 2014 D. B. Hardeman Prize. He has served as a Congressional Fellow of the American Political Science Association.