Expert Commentary

Do mayors run for higher office? New research

Few mayors run for higher office. And female mayors are even less likely to view positions such as governor and U.S. senator as appealing.

U.S. Senator Cory Booker, former mayor of Newark
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, former Newark mayor (

Few mayors run for higher office. And female mayors are much less likely to view positions such as governor and U.S. senator as appealing.

The issue: A number of high-profile leaders began their political careers as mayors. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who sought the Democratic nomination for president in 2016, started out as the mayor of Burlington, Vermont. U.S. Sen. Cory Booker was the mayor of Newark for more than seven years. Before becoming the governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam served as mayor of Knoxville from 2003 to 2011.

Do mayoral posts live up to their reputations as a fast track to a political career? New research looks at the career paths of mayors of large cities and the characteristics of those who aspire to offices at the state or national level.

A study worth checking out: “Do Mayors Run for Higher Office? New Evidence on Progressive Ambition,” published in American Politics Research, 2018.

More about this study: A research team led by Katherine Levine Einstein of Boston University examined the career trajectories of every mayor who led a major city between 1992 and 2015. The researchers also collected data on the cities’ demographics from U.S. censuses in 1990, 2000 and 2010. To better understand mayors’ views on higher office, Einstein and her colleagues analyzed responses from a national survey of more than 90 mayors in cities with more than 75,000 people.

Key takeaways:

  • About 15 percent of mayors ran for a higher office. About 5 percent won election to a higher office.
  • Of those who ran for higher office, 34 percent sought legislative seats and 41 percent ran for governor.
  • Mayors generally expressed a lack of enthusiasm for higher office, reporting that if they could not be the mayor of their cities, they would be attracted to nongovernmental work. More than 80 percent of mayors rated this type of work as “very appealing” or “appealing.” A majority did indicate the following government jobs were very or somewhat appealing: governor, U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary, U.S. Transportation Secretary, U.S. senator.
  • Black mayors appear to be less likely than those of other races and ethnicities to run for higher office.
  • Female mayors were 20 to 30 percentage points less likely than male mayors to view higher offices as appealing. However, 75 percent of both male and female mayors said they had been recruited for a higher office.
  • “The seemingly widespread perceptions of governing inefficacy at the state and (especially) federal levels have led mayors to view cities as the only places where exciting legislation can get passed. As the mayor of a western city put it, cities ‘are where you actually get work done.’”

Helpful resources:

Related research: