Politicians are people who are politically active, especially in party politics. Positions range from local offices to executive, legislative, and judicial offices of regional and national governments. Some elected law enforcement officers, such as sheriffs, are considered politicians.
Politicians are known for their rhetoric, as in speeches or campaign advertisements. They are especially known for using common themes that allow them to develop their political positions in terms familiar to the voters. Politicians of necessity become expert users of the media. Politicians in the 19th century made heavy use of newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets, as well as posters. In the 20th century, they branched into radio and television, making television commercials the single most expensive part of an election campaign. In the 21st century, they have become increasingly involved with the social media based on the Internet and smart phones.
Once elected, the politician becomes a government official and has to deal with a permanent bureaucracy of non-politicians. Historically, there has been a subtle conflict between the long-term goals of each side. In patronage-based systems, such as the United States and Canada in the 19th century, winning politicians replace the bureaucracy with local politicians who formed their base of support, the "spoils system". Civil service reform was initiated to eliminate the corruption of government services that were involved. However, in many less developed countries, the spoils system is in full-scale operation today.
Mattozzi and Merlo argue that there are two main career paths which are typically followed by politicians in modern democracies. First come the career politicians. They are politicians who work in the political sector until retirement. Second are the "political careerists". These are politicians who gain reputation for expertise in controlling certain bureaucracies, then leave politics for a well-paid career in the private sector making use of their political contacts.
Numerous scholars have studied the characteristics of politicians, comparing those at the local and national levels, and comparing the more liberal or the more conservative ones, and comparing the more successful and less successful in terms of elections. In recent years, special attention has focused on the distinctive career path of women politicians. For example, there are studies of the "Supermadre" model in Latin American politics.
Many politicians have the knack to remember thousands of names and faces and recall personal anecdotes about their constituents—it is an advantage in the job, rather like being seven-foot tall for a basketball player. United States Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton were renowned for their memories.