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Most Young People Won't Consider Running for Office (Policy 360 Podcast)

September 22, 2016

A 2012 study found that 89% of high school and college students had already decided unequivocally that they would never consider running for elected office. Compounding that issue, studies have shown that women are far less likely to consider a candidacy than men, even though women that do run perform at about the same rates.
In this episode of the Sanford School's Policy 360 podcast, Assistant Professor Deondra Rose sits down with American University professor Jennifer Lawless to discuss how we can encourage young people—particularly young women—to run for office. Lawless currently serves as the director of the Women & Politics Institute, and ran for the House of Representatives in 2006.

Conversation Highlights

Deondra Rose: so is it true? Are young people really running from office?

Jennifer Lawless: They are. Richard Fox and I did a national survey of more than 4,000 high school and college students in the last election cycle, in the fall of 2012. We found that 89% had already decided that under no circumstances would they ever consider running for office.

But it wasn't just this abstract notion that turned them off. When we asked them to compare running for Congress with being a businessman or woman, or being a lawyer, or being a high school principal, they preferred all the other options. When we asked them whether they'd rather be a mayor than a salesperson, many of them still chose salesperson. So people of the youngest generations today are very disappointed with what they see in Washington, and have decided it's not a way to solve problems, they've already decided it's something they won't do. ...

Beyond voting we don't really do that much as a country to get our young people involved in politics. We kind of wait until they're older, and figure that when they have families, they'll care more about issues in their communities. But the reality is that if you've decided to do something or not to do something by your late teens, it's very unlikely that you'll do a 180 and completely change. So if you've already decided that you'll never run for office, it's very unlikely that even when you have a family, even when you own a house, even when you have a job, that you will all of a sudden decide that you will throw your hat into the ring.

Deondra Rose: If you were giving us advice on what we might be able to do to attract young people at an early age, what would you say?

Jennifer Lawless: I think one of the most important things is to highlight some policy successes and to highlight some politicians who are actually doing good. Too often, the 24-hour news cycle brings us 24 hours of men behaving badly in Washington. But, they’re really a minority. Most elected officials are doing they’re jobs. They are getting the work of the people done.

We have more than 500,000 elected offices in this country. And so if we can highlight some of the policy successes, and some of the men and women at other levels of of government who are really doing nice work, I think that’s one way to bring people back in.

Deondra Rose: What do you think is the biggest challenge right now when it comes to women in elected office?
Jennifer Lawless: I think getting women to run in the first place is the biggest impediment. There is a substantial gender gap in political ambition. When Richard Fax and I surveyed lawyers,  business leaders, educators, and political activists in 2001, we found that there was about a 16-percentage point gap in terms of have you ever considered a candidacy, where women were far less likely than men ever to consider it. When we conducted the same survey with a brand new group of people ten years later in 2011, the gender gap in political ambition was exactly the same size. And in 2012, the gender gap in political ambition among 18-25 year olds was exactly the same size.
This isn’t something that’s going to go away or be taken care of with generational change. We need to encourage young women to run for office. We need to let them know that they’re qualified to run. And we need to let them know that when they do, they’ll be just as successful as men.
Deondra Rose: If you had to make a pitch to young people or college students right now in hopes of encouraging them to run, what would you say?

Jennifer Lawless: I would say that they should at least consider it, the same way that they consider a wide range of other options. They shouldn’t think about presidential politics and make their decisions based on that. They’re not going to run for president—maybe they will, but very few people run for president—but as I said, there are half a million other offices out there, and most of them are not fulltime jobs. Most of them don’t involve raising crazy sums of money. Most of them don’t garner any kind of media coverage, so there are no violations of privacy and journalists rifling through your trash. Most of these positions are just positions that can improve communities and towns and cities and states. I think it’s vital that we encourage the next generation to at least consider occupying them.

Jennifer Lawless was at Sanford to give the inaugural talk in the “Big Problems in American Democracy” lunchtime series.