The limits of term limits; beauty in the eye of the voter

Term limits is a popular reform among those trying to force more competitive elections upon voters who don’t seem very concerned that they’re so infrequent. California has had term limits for state legislators for two decades, and it’s produced an outcome that really shouldn’t be a surprise. Dan Walters writes in the Sacramento Bee:

Term limits, coupled with the evolution of well-oiled political machines in metropolitan areas, had the unintended consequence of fostering political dynasties.

Politicians staked out territorial franchises and when forced to vacate offices would often bequeath them to sons, daughters, brothers, spouses or other relatives. And the syndrome has not been confined to the Legislature.

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Just the other day, for instance, a 20-something man named Sebastian Ridley-Thomas was elected to the Legislature in a sparsely patronized special election because his father, Mark Ridley-Thomas, a former legislator and current Los Angeles County supervisor, cleared the path for him.

He will join a slightly older Ian Calderon, the scion of another Los Angeles County political family, in the Assembly. The Calderon clan includes uncle Ron Calderon, a state senator now under federal investigation, and Ron’s two brothers, including Ian’s father, who are former legislators.

This kind of thing happens without term limits, of course. Time magazine recently counted 37 members of Congress who “can count a relative among past legislators” and included a chart with timelines for each “dynasty,” the most enduring of which are the Frelinghuysens of New Jersey.

One explanation for political dynasties in a democracy is that members of prominent families have the financial resources, or can easily fundraise, for increasingly expensive campaigns. Another is our old friend “satisficing” (see earlier post), the theory that people make decisions by stopping at the first “good enough” option rather than weighing the costs and benefits of all possible choices. If term limits prevent you from re-electing an incumbent officeholder — the option that majorities almost always prefer — the next-best thing is to go with someone with the same surname. (That is, if you even notice that the first name is not the same one you’ve been checking off for years.) Term limits, like nonpartisan redistricting and looser requirements for independent candidates to get on the ballot, is something that polls very well (75 percent want limits for members of Congress, according to a Gallup poll from January) but doesn’t necessarily lead to more exciting or competitive races. Journalists like political upsets; voters rarely accommodate them.

Voters see Mitt Romney in their own mirrors

Another decision-making myth is that voters are drawn to the best-looking candidate in a race, an assumption that Harvard political scientist Ryan Enos disproved with a study of U.S. Senate elections (see earlier post). If you find it hard to believe that good looks aren’t an electoral advantage, you might be reassured by a study recently reported by NPR. Research by psychologists at Ohio State University suggested that when Democrats and Republicans looked at famously perfect-haired GOP nominee (and political dynasty member) Mitt Romney, they did not see the same person:

Students were directed to compare 450 pairs of slightly different images of Romney's face and asked to select the one in each pair that they thought looked the most like him. (The participants were plenty familiar with Romney; the study was conducted over the course of several weeks in November 2012, both in the days just before the presidential election and in the immediate aftermath.)

Once the photos were selected, researchers created two sets of composite photos of Romney’s face — one based on the choices of the GOP-leaning participants, and another based on the Democratic-leaning participants.

When a separate group of 213 adults were asked which images of Romney looked more trustworthy and more positive, overall they chose the ones generated by the Republicans.

Voters “may construct a political world in which they literally see candidates differently,” said one researcher. This makes sense in a society where we’re practically ordered to show favoritism toward attractive people. Read anything about advertising, how movies are cast, and online dating, and you’ll find reinforcements of the idea that it’s perfectly natural to show a bias toward good-looking people. But political science indicates that party affiliation remains the biggest factor — the satisficing factor — in how people vote. Unconsciously changing one’s perception of a candidate’s physical appearance may be one way of reconciling partisanship with the popular ideal of the fresh, new, good-looking candidate.

Photo of Mitt Romney from Netflix's upcoming documentary on the presidential candidate, previewed by NBC News.

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