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Political capital refers to the trust, goodwill, and influence a politician has with the public and other political figures. This goodwill is a type of invisible currency that politicians can use to mobilize the voting public or spend on policy reform. Some thinkers distinguish between reputational and representative political capital. Reputational capital refers to a politician’s credibility and reliability. This form of capital is accumulated by maintaining consistent policy positions and ideological views. Representative capital refers to a politician’s influence in policy-setting. This form of capital is accumulated through experience, seniority, and serving in leadership positions. Thus, political capital—reputational and representative—is the product of relationships between opinion (public impressions), policy (legislative rewards/penalties), and political judgement (prudent decision-making).
A politician gains political capital by winning elections, pursuing policies that have public support, achieving success with initiatives, and performing favors for other politicians.
Political capital must be spent to be useful and will generally expire by the end of a politician's term in office. In addition, it can be wasted, typically by failed attempts to promote unpopular policies that are not central to a politician's agenda. American President George W. Bush claimed to have earned "political capital" after the 2004 elections.
Political capital is highest in the "honeymoon period" of a presidency as in the United States, where the president is newly elected and the people still support the person they voted for. Along with the president's popularity are those who ride on the "coattails", congressional representatives of the president's party that are elected alongside the president. This support in congress enables the president to better use his honeymoon period and political capital to pass his ideal legislation.
- Schugurensky, Daniel (2000-06-02). "Citizenship learning and democratic engagement: Political capital revisited". Conference Proceedings. 41st Annual Adult Education Research Conference. Vancouver, Canada. pp. 417–422.
- Lopez, Edward (2002). "The legislator as political entrepreneur: Investment in political capital". The Review of Austrian Economics. 15 (2): 211–228.
- French, Richard (2011). "Political capital". Representation. 47 (2): 215–230. doi:10.1080/00344893.2011.581086.
- Watson, Rob (2005-01-20). "Ambition marks Bush's second term". BBC News. Retrieved 2009-06-23.
- "A balance sheet of 'political capital'" by David Gura. Marketplace, American Public Media. (11-7-2012)
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