Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Are Too Many Candidates a Bad Thing?

I'm still not sure I agree with Press Herald columnist Justin Ellis's plea to prospective gubernatorial candidates to resist running for the Blaine House to avoid inflating an already-bloated field of governor wannabes. Nevertheless, I'll channel Robert Schwartz, the author of The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, to explore the following questions: Are too many candidates for governor a bad thing? Will the large field of candidates dampen voter turnout and cause Maine voters to be even more dissatisfied with the eventual victor than usual?

In a
20-minute presentation at the 2007 TED Conference that succinctly sums up his book's thesis, Schwartz explains how having too many choices is not necessarily beneficial. In fact, Schwartz argues, a plethora of choices tends to spark analysis paralysis, buyer's remorse, escalated expectations, and increased self-pity among the decision-makers who must consider all those options. I'll introduce you to Schwartz's buddies opportunity costs, escalated expectations, and personal responsibility in a minute, but first let's look at how too many choices on the gubernatorial primary ballots might dampen voter turnout during the June primaries.

Schwartz cites a colleague's study that found employee enrollment into a company's 401(k) retirement plan actually went down 2% for every ten different plans offered to the employees. Participation in a retirement plan among employees who were offered fifty different options, for example, was 10% lower than the participation rate of employees who were offered only five different plans. Why? Well, acording to Schwartz, it's because the employees who were given fifty different 401(k) plans didn't find the process of choosing a retirement plan liberating, but burdensome. So burdensome, in fact, that some of them continuously put off researching the relative merits and demerits of the numerous plans for so long that they just chose not to enroll at all.

Now, when you consider these employees who chose not to enroll in their plans made their decisions despite losing out on significant financial contributions (both their own and their employer's matching funds) toward their retirement, is it too much of a stretch to assume voter turnout (especially among independent voters) in gubernatorial primaries featuring more choices than usual will be lower than it was in years featuring fewer candidates? I don't know, but it's food for thought.

Another kernel of contemplation is the affect too many gubernatorial candidates could have on Maine voters' psyche, namely their level of satisfaction (or more likely, dissatisfaction) with the election of the eventual winner. And for that perspective, let's now refer to opportunity costs, escalated expectations, and increased self-responsibility.

According to Schwartz, opportunity costs--a series of outcomes you forgo by making a particular decision--often cause a decision-maker who has many options more dissatisfied with their decisions than a decision-maker who could chose from only a few options. Or, put another way, could voters who have many different candidates listed on their ballots be more likely to experience voters' remorse than voters who don't have as many names on their ballots? According to Schwartz, the answer to that question is "yes, they would." That's because people who face many options before making a decision can't help but wonder if they made the right decision, so they continue to ponder the attractive qualities of the choices they didn't choose, often to the point where they feel dissatisfaction with the decision they initially made. So will the large field of candidates make more voters than usual wonder if they should've voted for candidates Y and Z, instead of the eventual victor, Candidate X? Again, good territory for a political scientist looking to be published.

Another reason why too many choices on the ballot could increase Mainers' dissatisfaction with their voting decisions can be explained by escalated expectations. Schwartz tells the anecdote of how he once went into a store to buy jeans with little-to-nonexistent expectations for the quality of jeans he would eventually purchase, mostly because he figured he'd have only a couple types of jeans to choose from. After an hour of trying on the many types of jeans available to today's consumers, however, Schwartz's expectations for a perfect jean went from being nonexistent to very high. So high, in fact, that the likelihood of him being disappointed the next time he went jean-shopping in the future would be much higher than it would be if he'd maintained his lower expectations for jeans brought on by having only a few choices. To square the metaphor to Maine's gubernatorial primary, is it possible the twenty-two candidates and all their different policies, experiences, biographies, etc. might escalate Maine voters' expectations for the gubernatorial candidates to the point where there will be dissatisfaction for the handful or so candidates who will survive long enough to appear on the general election ballot?

And finally, the final reason why Schwartz might argue that too many gubernatorial candidates could make Maine voters more dissatisfied with their choices than they would be if they had a few choices is because many different choices forces the decision-maker to be responsible for his decision-making. To continue with Schwartz's jean analogy, if he were given only a few types of jeans from which he could choose, he could blame someone else--jean manufacturers, fashion designers, the world--for his lackluster jeans. In this era of materialistic plenty, though, it is the dissatisfied jean owner's fault he chose poor-fitting and fashion-challenged jeans. Likewise, if Mainers elect an incompetent and hackish governor from a field of many different choices, who must they blame? Well, considering the electoral process has given them the opportunity to choose among many different candidates, wouldn't Maine voters be responsible for electing an incompentent and hackish governor?

- John C.L. Morgan

Related: As Maine Kids Go, So Goes Maine (October 31, 2008)
Related: Cock-Eyed, Take Two (February 3, 2008)
Related: Cock-Eyed (January 3, 2008)

1 comment:

J. Grant said...

Great article! I am a firm believer that the more ideas you have to choose from the more likely you are to get the right one. I also think that this makes the political process for these candidates extremely difficult and whoever survives to win it is going to really have to earn it, which can only be a good thing. I agree that it may get confusing at times to the voter, but I feel that with so many candidate they are actually going to weed themselves out until ultimately the voters are left with a much more manageable number on the ballot.