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Term limits overcame personalistic, incumbency effects

I know some people who refuse to leave home after dark on New Year’s Eve because they argue it’s “amateur night” for partiers and therefore their chances of a motor vehicle accident not their fault increase dramatically. We see a similar dynamic with elections when those not accustomed to reporting about politics end up doing it, and in doing so create wrecks of their own when it comes to analysis, aided in part by some unsustainable assertions that do not accurately assess the impact of party and incumbency in the 2007 legislative elections.

What is one to do with the published statement “Louisiana voters may have put less emphasis on party labels in Saturday's general election and more on individual candidates, challenging pre-election predictions and showing a different dynamic at the polls?” Anybody trained in analyzing political parties and elections at the state or local level, or who have watched them in action attentively around these parts, or who have done both, knows the highly personalistic political culture in the state de-emphasizes partisan politics perhaps more than anywhere else in the Union. I don’t recall seeing anything in print about how partisanship as an attitude would play a much magnified role in the 2007 elections, and it’s no surprise that its impact, as always, was small. (Especially considering only 4 Senate and 12 House districts of the 144 total even have pluralities of Republican registrants – 11 percent – yet 15 Senate and 50 House Republicans get elected, 45 percent of the total.)

Further, “Prior to the election analysts had said they expected a Republican-majority would be in the Louisiana House of Representatives, which was anticipated following Republican Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal's victory in the October primary.” I must have missed these “analysts’” statements: certainly I wasn’t among them as I gave my prediction last week on WIST’s “Inside New Orleans” with Eric Asher as 54 to 55 Democrat or leaning-Democrat House wins (54 actual). Not only was there little expectation the GOP could take the House after Oct. 20, a month before qualifying Republicans were conceding the enterprise would be a longshot.

In the end, we’re left with these words of wisdom: “I think the main thing is that local races and representative's district are localized, and party did not play the dominant role or the stronger role as we expected.” No, you don’t say! With such weak political parties, in Louisiana seldom are local parties, even if they had the will, able to make much of a difference at all in an election, and the state parties must be very selective with limited resources to intervene in these kinds of affairs. Knowledge of these aspects makes it hard to understand why anybody would have expected much different.

Nor were the mistakes limited to the presumed pre-election prognosticating. Concerning the results themselves, it was argued the results “showed a marked voter disregard for a candidate's experience in office.” That’s a difficult statement to assert when only two incumbents who ran ended up losing – the same result as in 2003. And even of the 26 term-limited switchers trying to jump from one chamber to the other, in those instances where they weren’t facing each other, the jumpers won in 8 of 12 tries – and one lost to an ex-legislator while another lost to the term-limited seatholder’s wife. Incumbency effects did not seem much reduced this election cycle.

So, if you want an accurate summation of the impact of party and incumbency in the 2007 Louisiana legislative elections, partisanship as an attitude seems to have increased somewhat in impact but still does not play a major role in voters’ decisions, and incumbency continues to convey potent benefits. Together, these facts indicate something of much greater import: term limits to some degree loosened the grip of both personalistic politics and incumbency. If that’s what the backers of term limits wanted 13 years ago, they got it.

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