Business, Politics, & Society

What Are the Different Types of Political Candidates? Learn About Political Candidates and the Different Levels of Legislative Office

Written by MasterClass

Aug 14, 2019 • 3 min read

Running for political office is an exciting, high pressured endeavor. If you’re passionate about politics and public service, you should consider whether or not you have the skillset to run for political office. If you do decide to run, it’s important to take some time and consider what type of candidate you’ll pattern yourself after.



What Are the Different Types of Political Candidates?

Candidates for office generally fall into one of the following categories, based on their background, their positioning, and the nature of the race in which they compete.

  • Incumbent. A candidate holding the office for which he or she seeks reelection. For example, George W. Bush, 2004.
  • Status quo. A candidate of the incumbent party who appeals to the electorate to vote for continuity of leadership. For example, George H. W. Bush, 1988.
  • Change agent. In direct opposition to the status quo appeal, the change agent candidate crafts a platform that focuses on the governing party’s shortfalls and failures. The change agent’s message and argument demonstrate a need for true change in representation, leadership, and governance, as well as an overhaul in personnel, policy prescriptions, values, and vision. For example, Barack Obama, 2008.
  • Insurgent. A candidate seen as outside the mainstream of their party, whose ascendancy challenges existing orthodoxy. For example, Donald Trump, 2016.
  • Establishment. A candidate seen as deeply embedded in, or a product of, a party’s governing elite, whose policy prescriptions, behaviors, and postures should be shaped by adherence to and operation within the party’s dominant power element. For example, Hillary Clinton, 2016.

Learn more about the different types of elections in America here.

What Are Different Levels of Legislative Office?

Most successful politicians work their way up the political ladder. It’s very rare that someone gets elected to higher office without first paying their dues in politics at the local level. If you’re thinking about a career in politics, either as an advisor or politician, it’s probably best to start locally and build experience before moving to statewide or national elections.

  • Local government. Most elected officials start their political careers at the local level. Running for a city council election requires hard work and perseverance, but voters are willing to overlook a lack of political experience. If you’re looking to get involved in electoral politics, running in a local election can be a great place to start.
  • State. State governments vary from state to state, but almost all have a bicameral legislature similar in structure to the U.S. Federal government. State politics are enormously important as state laws often affect the day-to-day lives of citizens more directly than federal legislation. Getting involved in state politics can be a great stepping stone to higher office.
  • Federal. Federal elections are the most expensive election campaign with the highest degree of difficulty. It’s very rare that a politician starts their career by running for Federal office unless they are independently wealthy and well connected in the political sphere. Nationwide federal elections take place every two years in November. Every single House of Representatives seat is on the ballot every two years, whereas senate seats are in different groups that come up for election every six years. The presidential election occurs every four years. Understanding the election fundraising and campaigning cycle for each of these offices is vital to electoral success.

Whether you’re looking to get involved in politics or simply want to become a more informed, engaged citizen, knowing the ins and outs of campaign strategizing is paramount to understanding how political campaigns work. In their online class, David Axelrod and Karl Rove, the respective architects of Barack Obama’s and George W. Bush’s historic election victories, provide valuable insight into how to develop a campaign platform and reach an audience with consistent messaging.

Want to become better engaged with politics and campaigning? The MasterClass All-Access Pass provides exclusive video lessons from master campaign strategists, like David Axelrod and Karl Rove.