The short answer to this question is ‘very low’. In total there are 535 seats in Congress and 320 million people living in the USA. At any point then, just 1 in 600,000 people living in the USA are members of Congress.
In a competition this insanely selective, only a small share of the population will have what it takes to seriously pursue a career in national politics. Some people who seem like they could be in with a chance – great undergraduate results, high verbal intelligence, charisma and persuasiveness – come to us looking for advice on their career.
If you were one of these people and actually tried to become a member of Congress, your odds would be much higher than 1 in 600,000 – but how much higher exactly?
It’s not straightforward to find a way to make progress. Nevertheless, we think we have found an approach that can get us in the right ballpark for some kinds of people. The method we will use is called reference class forecasting. In reference class forecasting you find a group that you are a member of and see what share of people in that group succeed.1
Who makes it to Congress?
If you want to know how closely you resemble existing members of Congress the paper to start with is ‘Membership of the 114th Congress: A Profile‘, from the Congressional Research Service. It is full of striking facts about who is in Congress and who isn’t. A few that stood out were:
213 of the 535 members of Congress had law degrees and 201 gave their occupation as ‘Law’;
102 of 535 had previously worked as Congressional staffers;
267 of 535 had previously been state or territory legislators while 41 are former Mayors;
Almost all have Bachelors degrees and 98 have Masters degrees, but just 21 have Doctoral degrees;
for some reason, 19 had been insurance agents.
From staffer to member
Let’s look first at ex-Congressional staffers. At any point in time there are 15,000 politically-oriented staffers working in Congress. Assuming that on average each of them spends 5 years working there, this suggests there are 100,000 present and past Congressional staffers between the ages of 40 and 75 (the key age demographic for members of Congress). 102 of that 100,000, or 1 in 1,000, are currently members of Congress. The odds of being in Congress at some point in time are better than this though – the average member of Congress leaves after 12 years in office, which means the membership of Congress turns over three times while you are in the age range during which you can plausibly run. This raises the odds of a random ex-Congressional staffer being elected to Congress at some point in their life to 1 in 330.
If you became a Congressional staffer with the goal of being elected to Congress, and think you have a plausible shot, you wouldn’t be just any old staffer though. To make this advice more useful to you, we need to look at the success rate for a different set of people: Congressional staffers who actually aspire to one day become members of Congress 2. Unfortunately, I know of no good data on what share of staffers fall into this category, though I would love to find a survey 3. My intuitive guess, which could be wrong, is that 1 in 8 staffers are in this group. If that is right, their rate of getting elected at some point is closer to 1 in 40, down from 1 in 600,000 for a random member of the public. Now we’re talking!
From interpreting the law to making it
Let’s consider another group that is massively over-represented in Congress – graduates of prestigious law schools. Harvard Law School (HLS) turns out about 580 graduates each year, and has 18 alumni in Congress. There should be about 20,000 HLS graduates between the ages of 40 and 75, so as for staffers, about 1 in 1,100 are in Congress. Given the average Congressional tenure of 12 years, and a window of opportunity to be elected of 35 years, their odds of getting into Congress at some point rises to 1 in 375.
And what if you’re one of the minority of HLS graduates who actually wants to join Congress? Presumably this raises your chances a great deal. Here we consulted contacts at HLS about how many people there would seriously contemplate running for Congress. They estimated between 1 in 30 and 1 in 50. This was lower than I expected, but then again, 93% of HLS graduates join the bar within 10 months, suggesting they are looking to use all of that legal training to practise law, at least to begin with.
Assuming only HLS students who would consider running for Congress are ever elected, these figures suggest that between 1 in 8 and 1 in 12 might ultimately succeed. I ran the numbers and they are also within a factor of 2 of this for Yale Law School, Georgetown University Law School and the University of Texas Law School, so this isn’t just a Harvard thing. The most prestigious private and state school are very overrepresented though.
Does this mean you should become a Congressional staffer?
If you want to become a member of Congress, does the above mean you should set out to become a staffer or lawyer to boost your chances? Maybe, but it’s not completely obvious. Part of the explanation for Congressional staffers being so much more successful at getting elected is the experience and network they accumulate while working in DC. But part of the explanation is just the kind of people they were when they became staffers in the first place: obsessed with politics and able to get a very competitive job. I can’t pull apart the size of these two effects with the data we have here. Nonetheless, I would say that becoming a Congressional staffer is among the most tried and tested stepping-stones to elected office available, and a great indication that you have what it takes to succeed (with chances in the range of 1 in 10 and 1 in 100).
What does this mean for you?
Because entry into Congress is so selective, I suspect that a small number of graduates from prestigious law schools have a very high probability of getting elected, while the majority have almost no hope. If you are an ex-con or have facial tattoos, going to Harvard Law School isn’t going to raise your chances that much. If your surname is Kennedy and you have a handsome jawline… well, you probably know you’re a strong bet even if you can’t see yourself sitting through years of lectures on jurisprudence.
The ‘most likely to get elected’ group probably overlaps very heavily with those who could see themselves running, so if for any reason you can’t imagine wanting to be a politician or being good at the job, your chances are probably pretty negligible. The traits I expect the most promising candidates to possess include: charisma, strong self-belief, mainstream political views for their home district, and for adults, existing contacts in the political system.
But let’s say you’re highly motivated, think you’re a pretty good fit for national politics, and believe you have what it takes to make it through one of the country’s top law schools, or work as a Congressional staffer. In that case, these numbers suggest your odds of actually making it are probably better than 1 in 100. If you are among the more politically-savvy members of these groups, your chances might even be better than 1 in 10.
What if you aren’t the kind of person who could be a Congressional staffer or attend law school? Unless you can fit into some other political niche represented in Congress, your odds are probably worse than 1 in 100. To get a better idea, we would want to investigate a reference class you do belong to, or at least one that’s similarly as competitive or talented, and figure out what their rate of success is. As it is, these figure provide an ‘anchor’ against which you can say your odds are higher or lower, though it’s hard to say by exactly how much.
Are these odds high enough to bother?
To me these odds look pretty good for such an exclusive and influential role. But from another perspective they are demoralisingly low. Would you be willing to work incredibly hard for years with just a 1 in 100 chance of achieving your ultimate goal? Many wouldn’t, but I think they should be open to it:
The most common paths to Congress, like law school, working in Congress, or becoming a state legislator, are pretty decent careers regardless, even if you never do make it to Congress (though we have some concerns about law school and know of fewer top cause areas that can be addressed at the state government level). If you decide at 35 that your dream of being a member of Congress is unlikely to be fulfilled, in the meantime you will have built up a lot of ‘career capital’ that you can then turn towards other important goals.
The US Federal Budget is simply enormous at $4 trillion every single year. By money spent, it’s the single largest organisation in the world. If responsibility for this spending were divided evenly among all existing members of Congress, it would come to an eye-popping $7.5 billion each. Even if only 10% of this money can actually be redirected based on the opinions of members of Congress, that is still $750 million you could shift each year on average. A 1 in 100 chance of having that power is still worth $7.5 million in expectation. On top of that, Congress has enormously important regulatory power over Americans’ lives, oversight of foreign policy and more. I don’t know exactly how much that is worth in terms of billions of dollars of spending, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it made the membership of Congress twice as influential as the dollar figures above suggest.
Our key uncertainties about this career track are: how much, if anything, elected officials can actually achieve; what personal characteristics make you a good fit for politics; how well people with an effectiveness-focussed and altruistic mindset, and a pragmatic approach to solving problems, can fare in politics.
If you’d like to read more analysis of this type, please sign up to our newsletter. We would also love to hear from people considering entering American politics, or of ways we can improve the numbers above.
Elaborating on this point: You then infer that your odds are probably typical for the kinds of groups you belong to. For instance, if I wanted to know my odds of getting a job offer at Starbucks, I could look at the share of all people who apply to work there who get a job offer, or the odds of all people with a college degree who get a job offer, and so on. The approach lets us learn from the experience of others and prevents us from becoming too biased in our self-assessment, though it has some weaknesses.
It’s hard to do analysis of this kind because it’s time-consuming to count which of the 535 members of Congress have various traits, and even harder to figure out how many people who have those traits ever set out to get elected. Fortunately, we have found solid numbers for some groups that are vastly over-represented in Congress. These are the most interesting ones to think about anyway, because those are the people most likely to be weighing their chances of getting into Congress. I have no idea how many famous film directors make it into Congress – but fortunately nobody has asked us to find out.↩
This is also meant to exclude the many staffers who are late in their career and can no longer plausibly transition even if they wanted to be elected.↩
I will assume that no staffers who don’t aim to be elected ever are elected to Congress; there may be a few exceptions but I expect this is basically correct.↩