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UARXXX10.1177/1078087416656286Urban Affairs ReviewHeberlig et al.

Urban Affairs Review
Mayors, © The Author(s) 2016
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DOI: 10.1177/1078087416656286
and Advancement

Eric S. Heberlig1, Justin McCoy1,

Suzanne M. Leland1, and David A. Swindell2

This article examines the effects of accomplishments on the career paths of
big-city mayors. Using data from 104 cities with populations over 160,000
from 1992 to 2012, this study examines the extent to which performance in
economics, crime, and recruiting mega-events affects mayors’ decisions to
seek reelection or other offices, or retire. Results indicate those mayors of
cities with population growth, a decrease in the crime rate, and that host
certain mega-events (presidential nominating conventions) are more likely to
seek another office than other mayors. A decrease in the crime rate seems
to help mayors win reelection while none of the other accomplishments
appear to improve their chances of winning campaigns for other offices.

mayor, careers, accomplishments, mega-events, crime

In the late 1960s, the Vietnam War was escalating and race riots continued in
certain cities. One evening, President Lyndon Johnson sat in the White House
surrounded by advisors. There was a great deal of frustration in the room
because the war was not going well. The advisors were in a temperamental

1University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Charlotte, NC, USA

2Arizona State University, Phoenix, AZ, USA

Corresponding Author:
Eric S. Heberlig, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 9201 University City Blvd.,
Charlotte, NC 28223, USA.
2 Urban Affairs Review 

state but the president was trying to enliven their moods. One of the aides
asked him how he could keep up his spirits when the news continued to be so
bad. President Johnson famously responded, “When the burdens of the presi-
dency seem unusually heavy, I always remind myself it could be worse. I
could be a mayor.”
This anecdote from President Johnson highlights why the office of big-
city mayor is typically viewed as a capstone rather than a stepping stone to
higher office: It is simply hard to succeed. But when they do succeed, we
would expect their accomplishments to affect their career choices because
accomplishments give ambitious politicians the ability to claim credit
(Mayhew 1974). In seeking to understand the relationship between accom-
plishments and advancement in base offices, we focus on mayors. Like other
executives, they have greater ability than individual legislators to control the
agenda and focus on issues that voters favor, and to claim sole credit for their
accomplishments (Burden 2002). As such, their accomplishments while in
office should play a prominent role in their career decisions. Specifically, we
expect that accomplishments in office, including economic growth, decreas-
ing crime, and recruiting mega-events such as presidential nominating con-
ventions, encourage them to seek other offices, to seek reelection, and win
these elections.
How accomplishments propel candidacies is critical to the accountability of
the U.S. democratic system. Indeed, as Linda Fowler (1993) argued, “. . . can-
didates are indispensable links between citizens and their government” (p. 19).
Fundamentally, who is elected mayor—or who leaves the office to pursue other
opportunities—determines who governs and thus the public choices that are
made on behalf of citizens. If voters reward accomplished politicians with
retention or promotion, ambitious candidates have greater incentive to serve
their citizens. If mayors, for example, believe they will be rewarded for their
economic development activities, they have an incentive to develop and imple-
ment strategies to recruit businesses to town and grow the ones that are already
present. If mayors seek and win other offices, they can use their experiences to
represent citizens in a new way, using their insights into city government in
state and national forums. And when mayors relinquish office, they open
opportunities for other talented local officials to serve.

Mayors and Progressive Ambition

Conventional wisdom has traditionally held that the office of big-city mayor
is a dead-end job politically (Murphy 1980). In reality, mayors may not be
any less likely to seek another office than other types of officials (McNitt
2010). Yet there is agreement that mayors do not do so frequently. This may
Heberlig et al. 3

be due in part to the fact that being a big-city mayor offers a constituency and
ability to affect policy that is larger than many other types of political offices
(Francis and Kenny 2000) and to the possibility that many local government
officials are not interested in state or federal office (Lascher 1993; Sokolow
1989). Nonterm limited mayors also face the opportunity cost of having to
give up their current job (which, as incumbents, they are likely to retain) to
risk the more uncertain possibility of competing for a different office.
Challenging an incumbent certainly is a risky proposition. But even in an
open seat race, there is the likelihood that other quality candidates will seek
the same seat as well. Thus, even if a mayor has ambition for higher office,
he or she then faces the decision of when to run (Maestas et al. 2006).
The literature on strategic candidacies emphasizes the importance of the
timing of the decision for quality candidates (Berkman and Eisenstein 1999;
Jacobson and Kernell 1983; Krasno and Green 1988). Quality candidates
already holding office, such as a sitting mayor, tend to be risk averse and are
unlikely to surrender their current position. Instead, they will wait for open
seats, mistakes by the incumbent (e.g., scandal), and/or favorable national
conditions (e.g., presidential popularity, economic conditions) to seek
another office. The challenge for any individual office holder, however, is
that many other ambitious office holders are monitoring the same conditions
and reaching the same conclusions about the best time to run. When a seat
opens, for example, many quality candidates may run, thus limiting the abil-
ity of any one of those officials to win (Sanbonmatsu 2002; W. J. Stone and
Maisel 2003).
This raises the question of what will actually convince a mayor to risk his
or her current job to seek another office. (Or what will get them to seek
another term rather than seeking less stress in retirement or a more lucrative
job in the private sector?) One way for a mayor or other official to gauge the
“right” time to run and to distinguish himself or herself from potential com-
petitors is based on his or her accomplishments. Many see that U.S. elections
at all levels are referenda on an incumbent if one is running. An incumbent’s
accomplishments are part of that referendum (Fiorina 1981).
When politicians seek another office, they use their accomplishments in
their current position to demonstrate their qualifications and competence for
the office they are seeking (Fenno 1978; Mondak 1995). As intuitive as this
observation is, few studies of progressive ambition have incorporated mea-
sures of specific accomplishments into their models. Herrick and Moore
(1993), for example, found that progressively ambitious House members are
more active legislatively but less successful in passing laws. That is, they use
legislation to take positions rather than claim credit (Mayhew 1974). Provost
(2010) found that Attorneys General who participate in multistate lawsuits are
4 Urban Affairs Review 

more likely to run for governor. Accomplishments, nevertheless, may be par-

ticularly important in local elections because off-year elections tend to draw
hard-core voters attentive to local issues (Oliver 2012). Issues and accom-
plishments are particularly important for challengers to provide a rationale for
voters to turn aside an incumbent whom they have supported in the past (Kahn
and Kenney 1999) and for incumbents to demonstrate their competence and
mitigate unfavorable winds in the external political environment.
Given that citizens know little about government generally (Delli Carpini
and Keeter 1997) and local government specifically (Oliver 2001), ambitious
mayors are more likely to run when they have highly salient accomplish-
ments for which they can claim credit. Krause and Melusky (2014) found that
the political effects of positive or negative accomplishments are short lived
because voters have generally short attention spans. Thus, ambitious politi-
cians need to take advantage of them while they are salient, or time these
events appropriate to election cycles.
Voters are also more likely to evaluate officials on items that are perceived
to be central to their official responsibilities. For mayors, promoting eco-
nomic development and combating crime are salient elements of their jobs
(Bowman 1987; Eisinger 1988; Elkin 1987; Gerber and Hopkins 2011; Judd
and Swanstrom 2014; Logan and Molotch 1987; Stone 1989).1 For example,
McNitt (2010) found that accomplishments, such as building key infrastruc-
ture projects, reducing crime, and increasing spending on social services,
improve a mayor’s chances of retention. Similarly, McCabe and associates
(2008) found that city managers tend to be rewarded with longer tenures
when economic times are good and are pushed out when times are tougher.
Salient events and crises are also particularly important for voters to gain
some basis for evaluating the performance of local officials (Arceneaux and
Stein 2006; Atkeson and Maestas 2012). A big convention, such as the
Democratic or Republican National Conventions and other mega-events, fit
this description (Bowman 1987). Mega-events would seem to be an ideal
accomplishment for which mayors could claim credit.
Most mayors are consistently active in trying to recruit businesses to their
city and attract corporate and fraternal conventions (e.g., Eisinger 2000; Judd
2003). But unlike business and fraternal conventions, competing successfully
to host a presidential nominating convention is an important civic validation
of the quality of the city and the effectiveness of its entrepreneurial efforts.
This is due in large part to the extensive media exposure associated with this
kind of mega-event relative to others. Local residents presumably should be
impressed by the tourism dollars brought to the city by hosting and their stat-
ure in the firmament of world class cities demonstrated by the media atten-
tion and the honor of hosting the mega-event. Mayors certainly have every
Heberlig et al. 5

reason to expect that citizens will reward their involvement in mega-events

and will incorporate this expectation into their decisions regarding how to
continue their political careers.
All mega-events demand effective coordination among multiple levels of
government (especially with regard to security), effective communication
among stakeholders and local residents, and simultaneously delivering rou-
tine services to residents while catering to the special needs of visitors and
dignitaries. Furthermore, all mega-events have economic impacts associated
with them and most have broader economic development spillovers. However,
not all mega-events are likely to have equal effects on mayors’ career deci-
sions. Hidden infrastructure, such as healthy sewer and water lines, and
increased K-12 graduation rates are critical elements in the economic devel-
opment health of a community (Rosentraub and Swindell 2009; Savitch and
Kantor 2002). But they are hidden and rarely carry significant news head-
lines. Sports-related mega-events, such as the NCAA Final Four Tournament
or the NFL Super Bowl, certainly have economic impacts and are news wor-
thy, but their economic development value is far more limited and tends to be
quite temporary (Lauermann 2015).
Unlike these mega-events, presidential nominating conventions are a spe-
cial breed because of their explicitly political orientation, and they hold the
national spotlight for three or four days, not just an afternoon or evening.
Mayors also spend considerable time and effort lobbying party officials to
win the bid and promoting the bid to local residents. Once the host city is
selected, mayors spend time on the phone and traveling to talk to major
donors to persuade them to contribute to the host committee (Heberlig,
Leland and Swindell, forthcoming). Having contacts with a large number of
nonlocal mega-donors is rare for most local politicians and thus can help
convince mayors that they can generate the financial support needed to seek
higher office. “In-party” mayors (58% of host mayors since 1992) are espe-
cially likely to make contacts with, and receive encouragement from, the
variety of party officials, activists, campaign consultants, and donors who
attend the convention. Thus, for these political reasons, we hypothesize that
those mayors who host political conventions are more likely to seek higher
office than mayors who host other types of mega-events. And, therefore, we
also test whether in-party mayors are more likely to run than other host
While the economic impact and development benefits associated with
hosting mega-events tend to be geographically limited in and around the met-
ropolitan area (and ephemeral over time), winning the bid and hosting a pres-
idential nominating convention demonstrate an ability to execute economic
development tasks. Hosting such an event can also be viewed as having a
6 Urban Affairs Review 

statewide or regional economic impact and could be used to spread goodwill

toward a mayor if he or she plans to run for state or federal office. For exam-
ple, mayors spend considerable time working across party lines with local
officials from across the region, as well as state officials, to recruit and imple-
ment the convention. Such experiences surely lead them to extrapolate to an
ability to appeal to voters beyond their city.2 Similarly, many businesses and
members of law enforcement from nearby cities and states are brought to the
city to work during the convention,3 earning the mayor goodwill of these
important groups.
We argue that presidential nominating conventions are a powerful stimu-
lus to progressive ambition because they combine a salient accomplishment
with the candidate recruitment activities by party officials and their agents.
Even though conventions are more orchestrated than in years past, they
remain intriguing to the American public because they offer voters a chance
to see other Americans from around the nation gathering for a general pur-
pose—to elect the next leader of the country (Hood 1992). This is an energiz-
ing event. Such powerful experiences can alter politicians’ career goals
(Gaddie 2004). Maestas et al. (2006) concluded that officials who seek higher
office are those who have the experiences and resources that are most easily
transferable to the campaign for the new office. These officials have the expe-
riences that allow them to take advantage of opportunities more easily. The
network of contacts developed by mayors during the implementation of polit-
ical conventions and the repeated media exposure the mayor receives prior to
and during the convention certainly qualifies and thus is likely to encourage
them to seek higher office.

Theories of political ambition typically posit that politicians make career
decisions based on a cost–benefit analysis of seeking reelection versus retir-
ing or seeking another office (e.g., Black 1972; Rohde 1979). These theories
also assume that all politicians are progressively ambitious in the sense that
they would accept another office if it could be obtained without cost. While
this may not always be the case in local politics (e.g., Lascher 1993; Sokolow
1989), minimizing the costs of seeking higher office (or seeking reelection)
will likely increase the probability that mayors will indulge that choice, while
increasing the costs of seeking higher office (or retaining office) will decrease
the probability that mayors will choose that option.
In this article, we are particularly interested in the effects of mayoral
accomplishments on a mayor’s career prospects, specifically economic
development, crime, and hosting presidential nominating conventions.
Heberlig et al. 7

Economic development and population growth are priority issues for mayors
(e.g., Logan and Molotch 1987) and, regardless of the extent to which they
are under the control of local officials, are accomplishments that affect their
career trajectories (Arnold and Carnes 2012; Krause and Melusky 2014;
McCabe et al. 2008; McNitt 2010). We include two measures of growth:
population change and economic change (per capita income). The
Measurement Appendix includes details on all the measurements and data
sources in this analysis.
Substantial positive growth in their cities should increase the likelihood
that mayors will seek other office. Our expectations are mixed regarding how
slow or negative growth should affect retirement decisions. The strategic
politicians’ thesis (Jacobson and Kernell 1983) would suggest that mayors
facing negative or slow growth in their cities should be more likely to retire
to avoid punishment from voters. Given that many slow growth or declining
cities have been facing such economic trends for some time, and that local
governments face constraints in addressing such trends (e.g., Peterson 1981),
mayors of these cities may or may not face substantial risk in seeking reelec-
tion.4 Likewise, declines in per capita income in a city in a four-year period
are probably part of a national recession, and voters are unlikely to hold a
mayor primarily responsible for the economic hit. Alternatively, the stress of
dealing with the challenges of high growth may increase the likelihood of
burnout and retirement for mayors.
Mayors who preside over decreases in their city’s crime rate should be
more likely to seek reelection or higher office. Arnold and Carnes (2012)
found crime rates affect the approval ratings of New York City’s mayors. One
can easily anticipate the attack ads from opponents when crime has risen dur-
ing a mayor’s recent tenure. Mayors interested in higher office certainly can
foresee such attacks and are likely to delay seeking office until the crime rate
has retreated. We measure changes in the city’s rate of violent crime because
it is more likely to be politically salient than property crime.5
Finally, the mayor’s success in recruiting a mega-event, especially a politi-
cal convention, should increase his or her likelihood of seeking another office.
And, if encouragement from party activists who attend the convention is a key
mechanism through which recruitment for higher office occurs, in-party may-
ors should be more likely to seek higher office than other host mayors. This
analysis includes the following as mega-events because the bid process, the
security requirements, and media presence are similar to presidential nominat-
ing conventions: G-8 Summits, NATO Summits, NCAA Final Four tourna-
ments, Super Bowl, World Cup tournaments, and the Olympics.
One significant complication in testing the relationship between host-
ing conventions and career decisions is the underlying issue of a mayor’s
8 Urban Affairs Review 

ambition. One could easily argue that ambition would drive mayors both
to seek higher office and to seek a legacy-building accomplishment such
as a hosting presidential nominating convention. From this perspective,
finding a relationship between hosting conventions and seeking other
offices would not tell us whether the convention actually increased the
probability of office seeking above the ambitious politician’s natural incli-
nations. Alternatively, if the mayor did not win the bid, he or she may be
more likely to delay retirement until he or she has completed the conven-
tion quest.
There is a way, however, to tease out the difference: examine cities that
bid for presidential nominating conventions and are not selected by the
national party committees. If seeking a convention is a sign of ambition,
mayors of bid cities should behave similarly to host mayors with regard to
future office-seeking behavior.6 The data set includes cities that submitted
bids and thus the analysis controls for the mayors’ actions to assess whether
it is the ambition inherent in the bid that matters or whether the act of hosting
has an independent effect on career decisions.
From a methodological perspective, then, we argue that hosting a presi-
dential nominating convention provides a “treatment” that is unlike bidding
for a convention or hosting another type of mega-event. Exposure to the
political environment of hosting a convention stimulates more serious con-
sideration of the viability of a successful campaign for other offices com-
pared with the more purely “administrative” tasks associated with hosting
other mega-events or from an unsuccessful bid for a convention’s failure to
expose the mayor to a treatment.
A mayor’s accomplishments are probably one part of his or her decision-
making calculus, but the opportunity structure also affects office seeking
(Schlesinger 1966). Two variables are critical in the local opportunity struc-
ture: (1) whether the mayor is term-limited and (2) whether there are open
seats available for other offices. Term limits obviously prevent a mayor from
choosing to run for reelection and force a decision either to retire or seek
another office. Open seats represent critical opportunities, given the difficulty
and cost associated with unseating an incumbent. Mayors should be more
likely to run for another office when seats are open. While there are many
potential offices that could attract mayoral interest (see Table 1), this analysis
uses open governorships and U.S. Senate seats as the primary measure of open
seat opportunities.
An additional element in whether the mayor seeks another office is the
overlap between the mayor’s current constituency and the electorate of the
office he or she is seeking (e.g., Rohde 1979). The more people who already
know the mayor and who have voted for him or her, the easier it will be to
Heberlig et al. 9

Table 1.  Career Decisions by Big-City Mayors, 1992–2012.

Number of Career % of
Outcome Decisions Decisions
Sought reelection 360 57.1
Lost reelection 42 6.7
Retired from office 200 31.7
Sought another office 70 11.1
  State elective officea 26 4.1
  U.S. House 18 2.9
 Appointed 12 1.9
  U.S. Senate 9 1.4
  County Office 3 0.5
  State Legislature 2 0.3
Total mayoral electoral decisions 607  
Total mayors 364  

Note. The number of electoral decisions exceeds the number of mayors because many mayors
serve multiple terms, thus deciding to run for reelection at least once prior to a decision to
seek another office or retire.
a. Governor (20), Lieutenant Governor (4), Attorney General (1), Secretary of State (1).

convince them to support the mayor for a different office in the future.7
Simply put, the larger the city is relative to the state’s population, the more
likely the mayor will be to seek another office. Furthermore, high profile or
highly visible mega-events like a presidential nominating convention can
serve as a signal of the ability of the mayor to achieve economic develop-
ment goals that can be appealing to voters outside the home jurisdiction,
even if the benefits of the mega-event did not accrue to residents outside that
Finally, the mayor’s existing tenure and age are likely to affect his or her
career choices. Mayors are naturally more likely to be older when they retire,
but younger mayors are more likely to seek other offices. Seeking the office
of mayor at a young age itself is a sign of ambition, and younger politicians
can enjoy the benefits of higher office for a longer period of time—assuming
continued success at reelection—before reaching a natural retirement age.
We have mixed expectations for the effects of tenure on office seeking. On
one hand, politicians who have shorter tenures should be more likely to seek
other offices because they have less invested in their current office. One the
other hand, some length of tenure is necessary to prove one’s qualifications
and to generate accomplishments. All else equal, longer tenure should
increase the probability of retirement.
10 Urban Affairs Review 

Research Design
To examine the effect of accomplishments on mayors’ career trajectories, we
gathered data on a list of 104 cities over the past two decades. We chose cities
to investigate based on whether their population was larger than the popula-
tion of the smallest city that had received an invitation to bid for a presiden-
tial nominating convention between 1992 and 2012. For example, in 1990,
Salt Lake City’s population was 159,936; by 2013, it was 191,180. Each city
meeting the population threshold is a case in each convention cycle between
1992 and 2012, allowing for a pooled cross-sectional design. Many mayors
appear multiple times in the data set as they serve across multiple convention
cycles. The analysis employs robust standard errors clustered by city to adjust
for the fact that these observations are not independent—Cities are cases in
each election cycle (1992–2012).
The analysis also employs the standard practice of using biographies to
trace the career choices of mayors (McNitt 2010; Murphy 1980), though
technology now facilitates searching for online biographies and local news
reports through Newsbank. The database also includes information on may-
ors’ tenure and age gathered in this manner.

We find that most of the big-city mayors sought reelection (57.1%) in the past
two decades, 31.7% retired, and 11.1% sought another office. This is slightly
lower than the 17% who sought another office in McNitt’s (2010) data cover-
ing a much longer time period. Slightly less than half (44%) of the progres-
sively ambitious office seekers won. Only 6.7% of mayors seeking reelection
were defeated. Table 1 reports the types of offices sought by progressively
ambitious mayors and the frequency with which they sought those offices.
Statewide offices were the most frequent target of mayoral ambition, and
overwhelmingly mayoral candidates campaigned for governor. The U.S.
House of Representatives was the next most frequent choice, followed by
appointment to an executive branch position (state or federal) and the U.S.
Senate. To put the infrequency of mayoral Senate bids into context, there
were nearly as many mayors removed for criminal conduct (six) as ran for the
U.S. Senate (nine)! A few mayors sought county-level or state legislative
office, and almost as many died in office (three). No mayors in the data set
sought election to or were appointed to judicial offices.
The analysis uses multinomial logit to analyze the career choices made by
city mayors in each election cycle (Kiewiet and Zeng 1993). Multinomial
logit is appropriate because the three choice options—retire, seek reelection,
Heberlig et al. 11

or seek another office—are unordered. Multinomial logit allows us to com-

pare the effects of each independent variable relative to each choice option.
In this case, we analyze the choices of retirement and seeking another office
compared with the choice of seeking reelection. Table 2 presents the results.8
For each independent variable that attains statistical significance, we calcu-
late the variable’s substantive effect on the career choice. Specifically, for
continuous variables, we calculate the effect of a two standard deviation
change—one standard deviation above and one standard deviation below the
mean. For discrete variables, we calculate the effect of a change from the
minimum to the maximum value (see Probability columns in Table 2).
Table 2 reveals considerable support for our key hypotheses. We focus our
discussion on the predictors of office seeking because that choice, rather than
retirement, is core to our theory. Several accomplishments relate to seeking
office. Mayors of cities with a growing population, a decrease in violent
crime and those that have hosted political conventions are all more likely to
seek to advance. Hosting a convention has the largest probability increase on
seeking other office and also decreasing the probability of retirement (appro-
priate caution is warranted here given the low number of cases and high stan-
dard errors). These accomplishments provide a message that mayors can use
to tout their governing abilities. Of course, the converse is also true: Mayors
know that evidence of that their city is becoming a less desirable place to live
can be used against them. Mayors are unlikely to risk a run for higher office
after a major increase in crime, for example.
Unlike hosting a political convention,9 just bidding for a convention or
hosting some other form of mega-event does not spur mayors’ ambitions.
Mayors of unsuccessful bidders in fact are less likely to seek another office.
This evidence helps to assure us that seeking conventions is not an indicator
of ambition in the same way that seeking office is. In addition, the motivating
effect of hosting conventions does not appear to be driven solely or mostly by
party activists prodding the mayor during the convention: Mayors of the
same party as the convention are no more likely than other mayors to seek
office.10 These results show that political conventions themselves seem to act
as a stimulus for mayor’s political careers: Host mayors are more likely either
to use the experience to advance or to use it as a rationale to continue their
investment in the city through reelection.
The opportunity structure variables are all significantly related to office
seeking. Mayors who are term-limited, who have more open seat opportuni-
ties, who have large constituencies relative to the state population, who are
younger, and who have longer tenures as mayor are all significantly more
likely to seek other offices. The probability scores indicate that term limits,
tenure, and open seats have moderate effects, while age and the city/state
12 Urban Affairs Review 

Table 2.  Multinomial Regression of Mayoral Career Choice, 1992–2012.

Sought Other Office Retired

  Coefficient SE Probability Coefficient SE Probability

  Population growth 0.003* 0.002 .03 0.001 0.002  
  Income growth −0.06 0.08 0.05 0.06  
  Violent crime −47.12* 30.14 −.07 −30.44* 18.99 −.07
  Convention host 0.72* 0.53 .12 −1.46*** 0.58 −.24
  In-party host 0.04 0.48 −0.04 0.36  
  Convention bid −1.02* 0.73 −.03 −0.03 0.36  
 Mega-events −0.56 0.49 −0.08 0.30  
Opportunity structure
  Term limited 3.02*** 0.69 .09 3.44*** 0.54 .51
  Open seats 0.52*** 0.19 .07 0.12 0.16  
  Population ratio 0.0005** 0.0003 .04 −0.0004 0.0003  
 Age −0.04** 0.02 −.05 0.04*** 0.01 .09
 Tenure 0.07** 0.03 .08 0.03* 0.02 .07
N = 560
Model Wald χ2= 97.22 (p < .01)
McFadden’s Pseudo-R2= .14

Note. Probability changes for statistically significant continuous variables are calculated
based on a two standard deviation change—one standard deviation above and one standard
deviation below the mean. For discrete variables, the effect is calculated based on the
minimum to the maximum value change. These appear in the Probability columns.
*p < .10. **p < .05. ***p < .01 (one-tailed test).

population ratio have small effects on decisions to seek other offices.

Retirements are significantly more likely when the mayor is term-limited, is
older, and has longer tenure.
These findings confirm that mayors, like other politicians, are strategic in
their efforts to attain office. They seek other offices when the opportunity
costs are lowest and the chances of success are highest. Critically, they time
their advancement when they have notable accomplishments on their records
that they believe new constituents will find appealing.

But Do They Win?

The evidence in Table 2 shows that accomplished mayors are more likely to
seek other offices. When they run for office, do their accomplishments make
them more attractive for voters? We examine this question using simple chi-
square comparisons. As mayors are running for a variety of different offices,
it would be problematic to create a model that combined them.11
Heberlig et al. 13

Only one accomplishment, decreasing violent crime, makes a statistically

significant difference in mayors’ rates of reelection. When the violent crime
rate has increased, 16.4% of mayors lose reelection compared with 8.9% of
mayors who presided over a decrease in violent crime (χ2 < 0.03). Population
growth, income growth, and hosting mega-events are unrelated to probabili-
ties of reelection.12 Hosting political conventions also are unrelated to reten-
tion: Only one mayor who hosted a political convention was defeated in his
bid for reelection (David Dinkins of New York; 5.9% compared with 11.7%
of nonhosting mayors, χ2 = 0.46). None of the measures of accomplishments
improved the chances that mayors who sought another office would win.13
The results suggest that few of the accomplishments are related to mayors’
chances of reelection or their chances of winning other offices. Part of the
story is surely that mayors tend to be defeated for idiosyncratic reasons
(Oliver 2012). But why would accomplishments entice mayors to run for
office, yet fail to help them attain those offices? Accomplishments likely
induce mayors to run because they give the mayor a message on which to
campaign. It is an element of the campaign they can control. Many other ele-
ments that affect the outcome of the campaign cannot be controlled by the
mayor, including their opponent’s experience and accomplishments, the
national economy and political environment, and voters’ willingness to
weight criteria other than partisanship and name recognition. More general
criteria of qualification, competence, and integrity, rather than specific
accomplishments, affect attainment of other offices too (Fenno 1978; Mondak
1995). Moreover, to the extent that a big-city mayor’s accomplishments are
seen by voters as unique to a big-city environment, voters outside the city
may not see those accomplishments as predictors that the mayor will under-
stand and assist with their problems. Having a record of short-term accom-
plishment increases the probability that the mayor will decide that the time is
now to run, but it is apparently not sufficient to outweigh all the other ele-
ments of the choice that voters consider.

Ambitious politicians look for opportunities to advance. They look for open
seats and a favorable ratio of old to new constituents. Younger politicians are
more likely to seek to move when they can reap the benefits of the new office
for longer periods of time. Our contribution is to document the role that accom-
plishments play in their strategic calculation. Winning a new office requires
demonstrating to new constituents that one is qualified. Having a recent record
of accomplishment in office gives mayors that sense of qualification as well as
a message to take to new voters. Our evidence shows that growth, fighting
crime, and landing political conventions spur mayors’ ambitions.
14 Urban Affairs Review 

The cumulative weight of the evidence in this article illustrates the precise
way that mega-events generally, and political conventions specifically, shape
mayoral careers. For most mega-events, the effects are minimal: Hosting one
is not a springboard for seeking higher office nor is it a credential that
impresses voters when they do seek office. Our evidence suggests that presi-
dential nominating conventions are a special breed of mega-event from a
careerism standpoint. Mayors of host cities are significantly more likely to
seek to retain office or to use it as a launching pad to seek other important
political posts thereafter.
The evidence here suggests that it is the experience of the convention itself
that stimulates the ambition of mayors. Mayors of unsuccessful bid cities are
not more likely to seek other offices compared with other mayors. In the
process of implementing the convention, host mayors interact with major
donors to raise money for the host committee, lobby for assistance from the
state and federal government, and develop plans with federal, state, and other
local agencies. Throughout the process of recruiting and implementing the
convention, they attract substantial local media attention for their efforts. In
short, they develop networks and a sense of accomplishment that convince
them that they can do “big things.” The donor contacts in particular help
convince them that higher office is achievable. Thus, they are more likely to
seek other offices. However, it is not the specific encouragement of party
activists who attend the convention that boost the mayor’s ambitions as evi-
denced by the lack of significant difference between in-party and out-party
mayors seeking other offices. While conventions may stimulate mayors’
ambitions, the credential is not sufficiently impressive to voters to guarantee
their success in seeking higher office. At best, it is one piece of an overall
record of achievement for mayors to take before the electorate.
Indeed, the accomplishment that has the most effect on mayors’ probability of
retention is their record on crime (Arnold and Carnes 2012; McNitt 2010). Given
the visceral nature of violent crime for voters, the attention it gets is not surpris-
ing. This finding is also reassuring in the sense that mayors are heavily evaluated
on a criterion (public safety) that is a core responsibility of local government, and
as such, an outcome over which they have some degree of control.
Certainly, there are limitations to our study on which future research can
build. We do not, for example, measure the mayor’s actual ambition for higher
office, the potential costs to their family, or the political predispositions of
their sought-after constituency. And it is possible that other accomplishments
encourage office seeking as well—such as the completion of highly visible
infrastructure projects. But we do provide evidence that some specific accom-
plishments matter, a point that has largely been neglected in the literature on
progressive ambition (cf. Herrick and Moore 1993; Provost 2010).
Heberlig et al. 15

Measurement Appendix
Age: Mayor’s age at the time of each presidential election (from local news
reports or calculated from online biographies).
Career choice (dependent variable): 1 = sought other office; 0 = sought
reelection; −1 = retired.
Convention host: City hosted a presidential nominating convention during
the mayor’s tenure.
Convention bid: City bid unsuccessfully for a presidential nominating con-
vention during the mayor’s tenure.
Crime: Change in the city’s rate of violent crime since the last presidential
election (calculated with data from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Statistics and
population data from the Census Bureau). Violent crimes include murder,
rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.
In-party mayor: 1 = host mayor is a member of the party holding its conven-
tion; 0 = non–host mayor; −1 = host mayor is not a member of the
Convention Party.
Income growth: Change in per capita income in the city since the last presi-
dential election (calculated with data from the Census Bureau,
Mega-events: Cumulative number of mega-events (excluding presidential
nominating conventions) hosted by the city during the incumbent mayor’s
tenure up to and including the current president cycle. We count the fol-
lowing as mega-events because cities must bid for them and because the
security requirements are similar to presidential nominating conventions:
G-8 Summits, NATO Summits, NCAA Final Four tournaments, Super
Bowl, World Cup tournaments, and the Olympics.
Open seat: 2 = Both Governor and U.S. Senate contests have no incum-
bent during mayoral election cycle; 1 = either Governor or U.S. Senate
contest has no incumbent during mayoral election cycle; 0 = both
Governor and U.S. Senate contest have incumbents during mayoral
election cycle.
Population growth: Change in city’s population since the last presidential
election (calculated with data from the Census Bureau, 1988–2012).
Population ratio: Ratio of city population to state population (calculated with
data from the Census Bureau, 1988–2012).
Tenure: Incumbent’s number of years in office at the time of the mayoral
election for elections between 1992 and 2012.
Term limit: 1 = mayor reached term limit; 0 = mayor did not reach term limit,
or city does not restrict mayor’s service (calculated based on online lists of
local term limits or city web page).
16 Urban Affairs Review 

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.

The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publi-
cation of this article.

  1. Public safety expenditures are the largest component of municipal expenditures,
and police are the largest component of the public safety category (2012 Census
of Governments, U.S. Census Bureau).
  2. Kevin Monroe, Chief of Staff to the Mayor of Charlotte, Interview with Eric
Heberlig, February 14, 2013.
 3. Carol Jennings, Special Assistant to the City Manager, City of Charlotte,
Southeastern Conference of Public Administrators: “What Every Public
Administrator Should Know About Planning a Mega-Event: Lessons from the
2012 Democratic National Convention,” September 26, 2013.
  4. Wright (2012) found that unemployment is an issue “owned” by Democrats and
that they are not punished or rewarded for changes in unemployment when they
are incumbent presidents or governors. Should his argument apply to big-city
mayors, many of whom are Democrats, this would mitigate any pressure on them
to retire in the face of unfavorable economic conditions.
  5. Changes in property crime rates are unrelated to mayoral career choices or out-
comes when included in the models along with or in place of violent crime rates.
  6. In addition to the evidence in Table 2, news records of the “entrepreneur” behind
the convention bids provide some insight into the role of mayoral ambition in
recruiting presidential nominating conventions (Schneider and Teske 1992).
Using Newsbank, we searched for “back stories” on the key players behind cit-
ies’ bids. Many cities’ media do not cover this element of the story whatsoever.
And when it is covered, politicians have an incentive to inflate their roles. So the
findings must be taken as tentative. Of the 17 cities for which there is sufficient
information to make a reasonably confident assessment of credit, in only three
cities (18%) is there clear attribution of the mayor as the originator and pri-
mary organizer of the convention bid (Menino—Boston 2000/2004; Whitmire—
Houston 1988, 1992; Rendell—Philadelphia 2000). In all the other 14 cases,
another local official or party activist was the entrepreneur behind the bid. In the
end, the mayor plays a prominent role in lobbying the National Party to accept
the bid, in raising the funds, and in overseeing planning and implementation.
But they rarely seem to be initiating the idea of hosting a convention as a legacy
accomplishment. And given that mayors attract the bulk of the coverage and
have every incentive to claim credit for the reputational and economic boost for
their city, the fact that mayors are not publicly credited more often as the primary
Heberlig et al. 17

convention entrepreneurs is telling.

  7. The extent to which the city’s media market covers the state also is likely to be
important for similar reasons (though the database does not include a measure
of this, such a variable would likely be significantly correlated with population
  8. Standard errors are clustered by city to account for multiple entries in the data
set. We also included fixed effects for election cycle. Another version of this
model included whether the form of government was council-manager or not.
The variable was highly collinear with the accomplishments of the mayor con-
vention host, convention bids, and mega-events.
 9. Of the 16 mayors of host cities in our data set (including cohost cities of
Minneapolis/St. Paul and Tampa/St. Petersburg), eight (50%) sought another
office compared with only 12% of all mayors.
10. In part, this result is due to the low number of cases. While a higher proportion of
in-party host mayors sought another office compared with out-party mayors, 56%
versus 37.5%, the differences are not statistically significant (χ2 = 0.28, p < .87).
11. Such a model would include a variety of traditional measures of election out-
comes, including indicators of the opponent’s qualifications, the candidates’
resource differential, the partisan bias of the constituency, and the political and
economic conditions of the election cycle. Nevertheless, our descriptive results
can indicate whether the accomplishments alone appear to give the mayor an
advantage in the contest, and thus whether more advanced analysis is likely to be
12. Reelection rates are as follows: population growth 88.8% versus decline 88.1%
(p < .83), income growth 89.4% versus decline 87.8% (p < .62), and other mega-
events 90% versus 88.4% (p < .82). Furthermore, these accomplishments are not
significant in a multivariate model that includes tenure, age, and the year of the
13. Rates of success when seeking another office are as follows: population growth
41.7% versus decline 57.1% (p < .24), income growth 44.4% versus decline
48.5% (p < .74), violent crime increase 48.5% versus decrease 46.7% (p < .95),
political convention hosts 37.5% versus not 47.5% (p < .59), and hosted mega-
event 20% versus not 48.8% (p < .22).

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Author Biographies
Eric S. Heberlig (PhD, The Ohio State University, 1997) has published four books
and numerous articles on political parties, Congress, and campaign finance. The book
titled Congressional Parties, Institutional Ambition, and the Financing of Majority
Control won the 2014 D. B. Hardeman Prize.
Justin McCoy (BA, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 2015) was a Charlotte
Research Scholar and is a candidate for a Master of Public Administration degree at
UNC Charlotte.
Suzanne M. Leland (PhD, University of Kansas, 1999) has edited two books and
published several articles on urban policy, public administration, planning, and eco-
nomic development.
David A. Swindell (PhD, Indiana University, 1997) is the director of the Center for
Urban Innovation and an associate professor in the School of Public Affairs at Arizona
State University. His work focuses primarily on community and economic develop-
ment, especially public financing of sports facilities; the contribution of sports facili-
ties to the economic development of urban space; collaborative arrangements with
public, private, and nonprofit organizations for service delivery; and citizen satisfac-
tion and performance measurement standards for public management and decision