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Why Do Experienced Challengers Do Better than Amateurs?


Politically experienced challengers are more successful in seeking political office than amateurs. The relationship is found so regularly that political experience has become the standard ex ante indicator of challenger quality in studies of American elections. Despite this, little work has investigated why experienced challengers are so successful. Many scholars attribute the relationship to inherent differences between experienced challengers and amateurs: experienced challengers have stronger electoral skills and greater access to material resources. I argue that these differences play a role, but an indirect one. Rather, experienced challengers are lead by both their resource advantage and the high amount of risk they are exposed to in seeking office to run in races in which their party has a good chance of winning. Thus, the direct cause of the experienced challengers’ success is self-selection into winnable races. Empirical analysis supports the self-selection model over a model in which resources directly lead to success.

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  1. I am indebted to Roberds and Roberts (2002) for this phrase.

  2. Roberds and Roberts (2002) avoid discussing theory at all: “We cannot explicitly explain why these candidates are more successful [than other amateurs]... Perhaps with future research, we will be able to gain a fuller understanding...” (p. 494).

  3. Challenger quality is more theoretically relevant than political experience, but less easily measurable. Throughout the paper I refer to the observable measure, experience. However, the theories apply to the broader notions of challenger quality as well.

  4. Of course, office-seeking amateurs may have to give up non-political activities in order to seek or hold office. These include business and professional duties, as well as personal ones. Thus, it may be more accurate to say that they pay no political opportunity cost for seeking office.

  5. Moreover, amateurs are more likely to run in hopeless races against strong incumbents. When it appears that an incumbent might go uncontested, local party leaders often recruit a standard-bearer for the party. These are almost universally amateurs, and these amateurs run poorly since incumbents go uncontested precisely because they are unlikely to lose. This group lowers the average “electoral favorability” of amateur-contested races as a group (Canon 1993).

  6. Recent work indicates that incumbent vulnerability is not strictly a political phenomenon. Rather, factors relating to incumbents’ and challengers’ perceived personal characteristics, such as integrity, problem-solving skills, and ability to work with others, are also significantly related to whether challengers decide to run (Stone et al. 2004; Stone and Maisel 2003). However, they cannot be included in an analysis without an exogenous indicator. Stone et al. survey of potential candidates as to their impressions of incumbents’ personal qualities; I do not have a measure.

  7. I obtained candidates’ levels of experience from Congressional Quarterly Weekly Report which, from 1976 through 1998, listed the occupations of all major-party House candidates who contested primary elections, including whether each was a former officeholder.

  8. The first condition does not specifically imply the second. Rather, the second condition holds only if the relationship between the probability of winning the primary and general election electoral prospects is similar for experienced and amateur challengers. I tested this proposition: In races in which at least one experienced challenger faced at least one amateur challenger, the primaries won by an amateur involved incumbents who were no more or no less vulnerable than the primaries won by the experienced challenger.

  9. It has been suggested that the simple fact that some amateurs enjoy high levels of resources, by itself, falsifies the self-selection theory. However, this line of argument (a) does not account for the fact that experienced challengers are so much more likely to have high levels of resources, and (b) falsifies the theory only if high-resource amateurs are the only amateurs to defeat experienced challengers in a primary election.

  10. Within the set of open seat races, finer tests are possible. For instance, in head-to-head races against each other, experienced challengers and “competitive amateurs” each win about half the time (competitive amateurs have won 38 of 80 such contests, or 48.5%). Additionally, when a member of each group runs against a “pure” amateur, both win approximately the same proportion of races (77% for competitive amateurs, 79% for experienced challengers).


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Correspondence to Jeffrey Lazarus.

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Lazarus, J. Why Do Experienced Challengers Do Better than Amateurs?. Polit Behav 30, 185–198 (2008).

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