Cultivating a Personal Base: How Reelection Makes Politicians Voter-Conscious in Centralized Party Systems

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Eun A Jo, covers the new article by Lucia Motolinia, New York University, Electoral Accountability and Particularistic Legislation: Evidence from an Electoral Reform in Mexico

In 2014, the Mexican government overturned a decades-long ban on consecutive reelection. This meant that politicians could run for reelection for at least another term in office. The electoral reform was heralded by some as a step toward greater accountability and fairer representation: people could now vote based on a politician’s performance rather than, simply, promises. Others favoring term-limits, however, feared that reelection would lead to corruption; politicians could use public resources to amass support at the ballot box. This debate cast reelection as either good or bad for democracy—but which is it?

To tackle this question, one must first understand how the possibility of reelection changes politicians’ behavior in office.

In her new article for the American Political Science Review, Lucia Motolinia affirms that reelection motivates politicians to pursue policies that likely win them votes. This is true even in Mexico, where elections are centered around political parties to which candidates belong rather than the candidates themselves. Though parties are still responsible for nominating and funding candidates, reelection incentivizes politicians to cultivate their own personal base.

To demonstrate this, Motolinia compiles an impressive new dataset, composed of transcripts from thousands of legislative sessions between 2012 and 2018 in Mexico. The transcripts cover 20 out of 27 states that held elections in 2018. During this period, some politicians could run for reelection while others remained term-limited; and depending on the state, some could be reelected up to three times. Analyzing these transcripts can help us gauge whether politicians with varying reelection incentives have different policy priorities. Are the policies they pursue “particularistic”—that is, delivering targeted benefits to a segment of the state constituency that acts as the candidate’s voter base—or are they general?

The results show interesting differences in the politicians’ behavior in office. In states that allow reelection, politicians were indeed “particularistic”; they devoted far more attention to policies that profited a community of their choice. Moreover, this “particularistic” tendency became stronger the longer the politicians could legally hold office (through reelection) and the more imminent the election. Finally, these differences in the focus on “particularistic” policies did not correspond with any party strategy, suggesting that they were driven by the politicians.

These findings have a number of implications for the quality of democratic governance. Motolinia writes that “particularistic” behavior ahead of reelection is not necessarily bad for democracy. In fact, resulting policies may bring about positive changes in, as well as beyond, the target communities. What matters is not whether candidates support “particularistic” policies, but whether their policies improve the lives of those they represent. The key question is, therefore, whether reelection can make politicians more responsive to the—particular or general—needs of their constituencies and allow people to hold politicians to account for their failures in office.

Motolinia shows that politicians facing reelection are—or at least claim to be—more voter-conscious than term-limited politicians. This, as she points out, leads to new and important avenues for research: Does the “particularistic” tendency in legislative debates produce corresponding programs and services? And how does the politician’s personal politics interact with their party politics? Such insights, combined with Motolinia’s research, will help strengthen our understanding of the links between electoral rules and the broader health of democracy.

  • Eun A Jo is a PhD student in the Government Department at Cornell University, specializing in international relations and comparative politics. She is interested in political rhetoric, emotions, and the domestic politics of international reconciliation, with a focus on East Asia. Currently, Eun A is working on two papers, exploring the drivers of South Korean responses to (1) Japanese apologies and (2) Chinese economic retaliation. She is the 2019-2020 Director’s Fellow of the Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies at Cornell and the editor of The Asan Forum, a bimonthly journal of the Seoul-based think tank Asan Institute for Policy Studies. Prior to her study, Eun A worked as an advisor in international security at the South Korean Permanent Mission to the United Nations. She holds a BA from University College Utrecht and an MPP from Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford University.
  • Article details: American Political Science Review, Volume 114Issue 4, Which Identity Frames Boost Support for and Mobilization in the #BlackLivesMatter Movement? An Experimental Test“, November 2020 , pp. 947-962
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.