What the Research Says: Youth Running for Office
Lead Author: Megan Lam
Contributors: Sara Suzuki, Alberto Medina
The upcoming 2022 midterm elections feature some of the first Gen Z candidates running for national office. They are vying to make a dent in severe youth underrepresentation among elected officials: despite making up more than a quarter of the voting population, as of 2021, only 7% of the 117th Congress members were millennials (Schaeffer, 2021). Furthermore, the handful of youth who currently hold office do not fully reflect the racial, gender, and political diversity of young voters (Thompson & Singh, 2018).
More representative democracies better reflect the interests of all constituencies. The relative lack of youth in elected office poses a challenge for creating such a democracy. In September, CIRCLE released a white paper featuring new research on youth running for office: their level of interest, the barriers they perceive, the support they do or don’t receive for running, and the disparities in all these factors that must be addressed. In this summary, we add to that research by exploring the literature on factors that shape whether and which youth run for office, in order to inform both future research and efforts by organizations and practitioners.
From Interest to Candidacy
Our September 2022 white paper "From Interest to Candidacy: Supporting Young People on Their Path to Running for Office" provides in-depth analysis on the interest and experiences of young people who have run for office or expressed a desire to do so. Based on the data, it points to how various communities and institutions can expand their support for a more equitable pool of potential young candidates.
While youth remain underrepresented in elected office, in recent years more and more young people have run for political office. Increases in the rate at which young people run for office have been largest since 2018 (CIRCLE, 2022). To understand the factors that influence youth political ambition, we examined research that looked at the pathways that lead young people to run while examining any disparities that exist in these pathways. Some key takeaways from our paper and our review of the literature:
- Despite their under-representation in elected office, youth of color are running at a greater rate than older people of color.
- Young women make up only 30% of all candidates and are significantly less likely to indicate interest in running for office.
- Financial insecurity acts as a major barrier for young people to run for office, and youth who make less than $50,000/year are less likely to run.
- Increasing youth exposure to political experiences and role models could lead to more representative democracies.
Racial Differences Among Youth in Elected Office
Generation Z and Millennials are the most racially diverse generations of adults in the United States. While 30% of Generation X identify as nonwhite, 39% and 48% of Millennials and Gen Z, respectively, identify as nonwhite (Fry & Parker, 2018). Young people are bringing this diversity into elected office: as of 2018, 17% of Millennial members of Congress were people of color (Center for Youth Political Participation, 2018).
A study surveying law and policy graduate students found that young men of color are more politically ambitious than young white men (Shames, 2017). Unlike the generational differences seen among white people, a recent study found that young Black people are more likely to consider running for office than older Black people (Scott & Collins, 2020). Our research is consistent with those findings; not only do Black youth feel more qualified to run for office than previous generations, but they also are more likely to be interested in running than white youth (CIRCLE, 2022). This ambition is also seen in Hispanic/Latinx youth, who, compared to white youth, are more likely to run if given the opportunity (CIRCLE, 2022).
Despite the encouraging numbers of young BIPOC legislators, racial gaps still exist in elected office. Young Hispanic and Asian people are still underrepresented in the legislature. While Hispanic people make up 21% of youth, only 9% of youth legislators are Hispanic (Thompson & Singh, 2018). Similarly, despite Asian people representing 8% of all youth, only 2% of young elected officials are Asian (Thompson & Singh, 2018).
Young Women are Less Likely to Run for Office
Across all age groups, only about a third of all political candidates are women (CIRCLE, 2022). And, young women are less likely to indicate that they feel qualified to run for office (CIRCLE, 2022). The literature underscores that voter preferences (for men) are not a major factor explaining the low rates of women in elected office (Schwarz & Coppock, 2022), and instead explores a variety of other reasons to explain these gender gaps.
Some hypothesize that, early on, children are taught that politics is a space for men and men only (Bos et al., 2021). Others suggest that women are not exposed to enough discussion about female politicians (Campbell & Wolbrecht, 2006; Fox & Lawless, 2014).
Others believe that women, particularly women of color, find the high opportunity costs associated with running for office prohibitive (Shames, 2017; Lawless, 2012). Women of color are more likely to view running as risking not only their privacy and income but also the well-being and financial security of their families (Shames, 2017).
High Costs Are a Barrier to Running for Office
Running for office is expensive. In 2014, the average candidate for the House of Representatives spent close to $700,000 on their campaign (Hall, 2019). Winning a local election can also require significant investment. In 2020, a single LA school district’s top two candidates together spent more than $500,000 (Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, 2020).
Candidates also incur a substantial opportunity cost. The everyday intricacies of running a campaign take up a large amount of time—some have estimated that candidates need about 540 days of election work to win (Shames, 2017). Under these circumstances, it becomes unrealistic to maintain employment and/or schooling. Young people are vulnerable to these worries, as about 60% of youth are very concerned about the possibility of losing money or their jobs when running for office (CIRCLE, 2022).
As campaigning costs continue to rise over the years, potential candidates are deterred from throwing their names in the hat (Lawless, 2012). Those who run tend to be more financially comfortable (Shames, 2017). Our research finds that more than 60% of the 18- to 25-year-olds who ran had an annual income of at least $50,000 (CIRCLE, 2022). For 26- to 34-year-old candidates, we found that nearly 50% of them made more than $80,000 a year (CIRCLE, 2022).
Pathways to Office: Political Experience and Role Models Can Support Youth
From having dinner conversations about politics to participating in student government, a variety of political experiences can act as pathways for young people to run for office (Zukin et al., 2006). Research finds that the youth who do run for office are politically active and engaged (CIRCLE, 2022). These experiences not only help youth network and meet like-minded people, but they also play important roles in developing youth’s sense of self-confidence, an important factor that helps predict the likelihood to run for office (Fox & Lawless, 2014).
Role models can also play an important role in both the character development and aspirations of young people (Johnson et al., 2016), and political role models are no exception. Young elected leaders often cite having a role model that they want to emulate in their careers (Mandel & Kleeman, 2004). While these figures are often friends and family members, they can also be visible political figures that inspire young people’s civic engagement. In one study, women were four times more likely to feel qualified to hold elected office after receiving encouragement from an electoral gatekeeper such as a politician, activist, or civic leader (Lawless & Fox, 2005).
The Role Model Effect could explain this phenomenon. As individuals increasingly see people like them in elected office, they are more likely to run for office themselves (Campbell & Wolbrecht, 2006). The Role Model Effect is particularly important for women and people of color. The visibility of female and minority politicians inspires more young women and young women of color to consider running for office (Campbell & Wolbrecht, 2006; Deckman & McDonald, 2022).
Running for office is a leap of faith; the leap only becomes more formidable considering the potential barriers in place. While these challenges affect people of all ages, youth are particularly vulnerable to the risk of partaking in politics. Fortunately, the young people of today are no strangers to wielding their political power (Deckman & McDonald, 2022). From participating in the 2017 Women’s March to protesting the murder of George Floyd, young people are leading the charge in demanding social change. To preserve the voices of young people, stakeholders must support and uplift youth, including in their races for elected office.
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