September 3, 2014

Who runs for office? A profile of the 2%

There are 90,107 government units in the U.S. — everything from county governments (3,031) to independent school district governments (12,880), according to 2012 Census Bureau data. Some governments have appointed officials, but hundreds of thousands of Americans serve in elected office, mostly at the local level.

For the first time, Pew Research asked a question about who seeks out these offices and found that about 2% of Americans say they have ever run for federal, local, or state elected office. With the data from this year’s polarization survey and political typology, we can provide a snapshot of who has ever placed their name on a ballot, although we don’t know how recently they did so.whites, males, educated most likely to run for public office

Our data show that those who say they have sought office tend to be white, male and well-educated. In fact, while women account for half of the adult population, they are just a quarter of those who say they have run for office. This is in keeping with other research that has documented the imbalance. Women who serve in office continue to be underrepresented at all levels of government — 20% of U.S. senators are women, as are 18% of House members; at the state level, only 10% of governors and 24% of state legislators are women.

There is a similar imbalance when it comes to race and ethnicity, with whites disproportionately more likely to have sought office and blacks and Hispanics less likely to have done so. While non-Hispanic whites make up 66% of American adults, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey, 82% of those who say they have ever run for office are white.

By contrast, non-Hispanic blacks make up 12% of the adult population but only 5% of office-seekers. Similarly, 15% of U.S. adults are Hispanic while only 6% of the adults who have ever run for office are Hispanic.

Moreover, 16% of those who say they have run for office have post-graduate degrees; only 10% of the total adult population has attained that level of education.

In addition to having run for office, this group also participates more in other political activities. For example, while 15% of all U.S. adults say they have made a donation in the last two years to a political campaign or group that supports a candidate for office, 35% of office-seekers have donated money in that time.

One caveat is that our question asks about a lifetime history of running for office and does not provide a snapshot of who currently is running for office. Thus, 43% of adults who have ever run for office are ages 65 and older, while the age profile of candidates today might be different.

Methodological note: The survey question was asked of 3,341 adults, Jan. 23-Feb. 9, 2014, with a margin of error of 2.0 percentage points. A total of 112 people, or 2% of the weighted sample, said they have ever run for office.

Topics: Political Polarization

  1. is a research analyst focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous1 year ago

    Quick question

    Shouldn’t these just be scatterplots? Why is it a line graph, there is no relation between the points.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      The line represents what percentage of the population each demographic makes up compared to what percentage of each demographic runs for office. Take the male female graph for example. Females make up 51% males make up 49% of the general population. 51%+49%=100% Follow the line and you can see that males make up 75% of who run for office while females make up 25%. 75%+25%=100%. Ideally all of the lines should be horizontal. A horizontal line would signify that demographic of the population is adequately represented within political candidates. Without horizontal lines one cannot easily infer whether or not a set demographic is fairly represented in public offices. It’s easy to say that demographic A doesn’t hold any offices because of sexism, racism, etc. by a simple look at elected offices held. This chart demonstrates that the root of the problem is that certain demographics are not adequately running for office therefore cannot be adequately represented within political offices held.

  2. Richard Tebaldi3 years ago

    It’s interesting! Here’s what I see when a person runs for office: they need to have financial backing, therefore they must be intelligent. They must believe in themselves and have a vision of what they want to do. The problem is they don’t know how rotten politics can be. I see both parties as “predatory”! The “R’s” believe in a smaller government, the “D’s” believe we need them to make decisions for those who don’t make good decisions. So they “recruit” potential candidates, sometimes by how much influence they have at raising money for elective offices. Once in the “loop” they become lemmings, voting for the ideas of their party to “ingratiate” themselves to the upper echelon so that they may be selected to grow towards bigger leadership opportunities. The “newbies” are used by the “good ole’ boys” in the the upper echelon by promises, which may or may not be kept. They are told how to vote and who’s bill is to be voted for. Big business, big pharmaceuticals, big whatever, sells a product to a taxpayer, takes some of the profits they make from the the taxpayer, then buys the help of a lobbyist that will promote a policy that will screw the taxpayer and make ridiculously high profits, then gives some 2% tax exempt back to the legislators. Meanwhile the ” newbie good guys” write a piece of legislation that helps the taxpayers, but in order to get the bill passed, it has to be “negotiated”!
    By the time they get done, the taxpayer wins about 33% of the intent, and everybody else goes home rich. What does the “average politician” come to office earning? What does he come out of office with, more much more or exponencially more earnings than should be expected.

    1. Anonymous1 year ago

      Republicans do not represent limited government.

  3. Laurie Kretchmar3 years ago

    Yes, candidate recruitment is key. close the gap CA is a California-based organization recruiting progressive women to run for open seats in the CA legislature. Here’s some research we did about who’s running in 2014:… here’s info on the 92 women who’ve served in Sacramento since 1960:…