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Leadership Experiences Within Civil Organizations and Candidacy in Public Elections: Causal Evidence from a Quasi-Experimental Approach

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Standing as a candidate in public elections has been characterized as the ultimate act of political participation. We test the hypothesis that acquiring office within civil organizations increases the probability of becoming a candidate in public elections. In order to take self-selection problems into account, we provide quasi-experimental evidence using election discontinuities, in which we compare the likelihood of being nominated for public office between closely ranked winners and losers in Swedish student union (SU) elections. Our original data cover 5,000 SU candidates and register data on their candidacies in public elections (1991–2010). The analysis provides support to the hypothesis: Students elected to SU councils were about 34 percent (6 percentage points) more likely to become a candidate in a public election than SU council candidates who were not elected. The causal impact is fairly stable over time. The analysis makes important contributions to two interrelated bodies of literature: First, it provides political recruitment literature with causal evidence that acquiring leadership experiences at arenas outside of representative democratic institutions facilitate entry into election processes. Second, it provides strong evidence to an increasingly contested issue within political participation research by showing that certain organizational activities increase individuals’ political involvement.

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  1. “Associations”, “voluntary associations”, “organizations”, and “civil organizations” are used synonymously throughout the article.

  2.  Political participation refers to an activity by an individual with the intent of influencing government action either directly by affecting the making or implementation of public policy or indirectly by influencing the selection of people who makes these policies (Verba et al. 1995).

  3.  Within research on political behavior, RD approaches have, for instance, been used in the study of “incumbency effects” in electoral races (Caughey and Sekhon 2011; Folke and Snyder 2012).

  4.  This approach differs from several earlier studies using RD-methods in a PR setting that rely on vote share discontinuities; see Folke (2014) and Fiva et al. (2014) on how the representation in local assemblies affect public policy, Kotakorpi et al. (2013) and Lundqvist (2013) on monetary returns to holding office, and Golden and Picci (2015) on incumbency effects in an Italian PR setting. Our data do not contain vote shares, but the elections are very volatile and unpredictable, which provides a good foundation for causal identification even when relying on thresholds in discrete list ranks.

  5.  Uppsala Student Union has about 33,000 members (the largest in Sweden) and Stockholm University Student Union around 20,000 members. During the second half of the 1990s, Lund Student Union (which had about 15,000 members in 1990) was split up into various student unions and thus does no longer exist. The number of members in each of the three SU councils ranges from 41 to 61.

  6.  In those cases (certain years in Uppsala and Lund) where votes on individual candidates also were allowed, our statistical approach takes potential selection biases into account (see details below).

  7.  We conducted this survey among candidates and members of the SU council at one Swedish university in 2011 and in 2012. The overall response rate was 67 percent (141 students participated). For more information about the survey and some key results, see Online Appendix (Tables A8–A11).

  8.  See Table A1, Table A2 and Figure A1 in Online Appendix for detailed information about the data set.

  9.  See for example Fig. 4. See also the following figures and tables in the Online Appendix: Table A3, Table A5, Figure A2 and Figure A3.

  10.  Statistics Sweden also gave us access to data on another possible outcome variable: being elected in a public election. Given our theoretical focus on candidate recruitment and political participation, this variable is not of primary interest. However, it could nevertheless be interesting to examine how the likelihood of becoming elected is affected. A limitation with such approach is that only around a third of the candidates in our data are elected in a public election. As a consequence, it is not possible to get reasonable precision in the analysis. If we run such an alternative model, we find similar or even larger effects (relative to the baseline probability; see Table A2 and Figure A5 in Online Appendix), even though these estimates in many specifications are insignificant due to the large standard errors (see Figure A5 in the Online Appendix). It should be noted that failure to get elected in public elections in Sweden does not mean that candidates at the lower end of the party lists are not involved in politics. For instance, it is common to populate municipal boards and committees with non-elected candidates. Two surveys by Statistics Sweden (in 2007 and 2011) demonstrate that around 60 percent of the non-elected candidates in the 2006 and 2010 elections became members of at least one local board or committee (Lindgren et al. 2014).

  11.  Despite the somewhat unattractive name of “Fuzzy RD-design”, the IV set-up preserves its original experimental properties (see e.g. Lee and Lemieux 2010). The instrumental variable in this set up (Above in Eq. 1) is binary. The properties of the instrumental variables estimator in such a setting are very well documented in the treatment effects literature (Wooldridge 2002).

  12.  Data contains some individuals who appear in the sample during multiple years. By clustering the standard errors at the level of the individual, the statistical inference will be correct despite of repeated outcomes for the same individual. Excluding candidates that appear several times generates very similar point estimates, although the effects in some specifications become statistically insignificant due to the smaller sample (see Table A5 in the Online Appendix).

  13. In the Online Appendix we show the distribution of observations across the thresholds (Figure A1). Note though that this distribution is balanced by construction, since we only include lists where some (but not all) SU candidates are elected.

  14.  In PR systems, a distinction is often made between mandate (safe) seats, fighting (swing) and ornamental seats (e.g. Matland and Taylor 1997). Our evidence suggests that a wide range of SU-list positions are fighting seats. Note also that some recent papers studying rank discontinuities in public elections use bootstrap methods to get discontinuities in the vote shares instead. We are not able to perform those exercises here due to missing data on vote shares; however, due to the stochastic nature of the election outcomes documented above, the need for applying those methods is also smaller.

  15.  The exercise is very similar to the tests performed after running randomized experiments, where it is assessed if the characteristics of treated and non-treated are indeed similar on average (as they should be if randomization “worked”).

  16.  An F-test for the joint significance of the variables in a regression towards the instrument shows that they also are jointly insignificant with a p value of 0.4. Furthermore, including all the variables in the main analysis has no impact on the results. Another common test in RD studies is to analyze the number of observations on the two sides of the threshold, but these are equal by definition in our case.

  17.  In Fig. A2 in the Online Appendix, we include a wider set of observations and generate a graph similar to Fig. 3 (i.e. both graphs display similar effects in the first and the second stage). Additional evidence presented in the Online Appendix shows that the only statistically significant jump exists exactly at the threshold (Figure A4).

  18. Note that standard tests of optimal bandwidths do not apply, since our underlying data are discrete.

  19. Standard errors become larger when controlling for list ranks (column 4–6) as the ranking, by construction, is correlated with the threshold.

  20. Thus, in the regressions of the probability to be elected within the first few years (the first estimates to the left in Fig. 5), we use those SU candidates for whom we can measure election outcomes within a few years (i.e. excluding SU candidates from the early 1980s). Similarly, the estimates for being elected later in time (the last estimates to the right in Fig. 5) are based on the individuals we can observe with a substantial follow-up period (i.e. excluding observations from the 2000s).

  21.  We have also tried to estimate the model for different subsets of individuals; however, the precision is usually too poor for us to infer anything useful. If anything, the effects appear to be larger for males than for females (not presented here). Moreover, we have estimated the effects separately for the three different levels of government (see Table A6 in the Online Appendix). The results suggest that the impact is more pronounced at the two subnational levels of government.


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This article is based on work supported by the Institute for Evaluation of Labor Market and Education Policy (IFAU) [Grant No. 148/09]. The authors thank Michelle Taylor-Robinson, Laura Stoker, Karl-Oskar Lindgren, Alex Solis, Gunnar Myrberg, Henrik Oskarson, Markus Steinbrecher, Björn Öckert, Erik Amnå, Patrik Öhberg, and four anonymous reviewers for helpful comments and suggestions. A special thanks to Cecilia Josefsson and Neshat Alizadeh for excellent research assistance, and to the student unions for kindly giving us access to their archives. Any remaining errors are the responsibility of the authors. The authors are equal contributors to this article: names are listed in alphabetical order.

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Correspondence to Pär Zetterberg.

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Lundin, M., Nordström-Skans, O. & Zetterberg, P. Leadership Experiences Within Civil Organizations and Candidacy in Public Elections: Causal Evidence from a Quasi-Experimental Approach. Polit Behav 38, 433–454 (2016).

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