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The “Big Five” personality traits of presidents and
the relaxation of term limits in Latin America
Ignacio Arana Araya
To cite this article: Ignacio Arana Araya (2021): The “Big Five” personality traits of
presidents and the relaxation of term limits in Latin America, Democratization, DOI:
To link to this article: https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2021.1957838
Published online: 06 Aug 2021.
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The “Big Five”personality traits of presidents and the
relaxation of term limits in Latin America
Ignacio Arana Araya
Institute for Politics and Strategy, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, USA
Thirty-one presidents from every Latin American country –excluding Mexico –who
were governing from 1945 to 2012 tried forty times to change the constitution of
their countries to overstay in oﬃce. These attempts often caused severe political
instability. Current explanations of the variability of term limits have centred on
the context in which presidents govern despite the protagonism of the leaders in
the constitutional changes. I argue that the personality traits of presidents are
an important driver of their overreaching behaviour. Centred on the paradigm of
the “Big Five,”I propose hypotheses about a causal relationship between each of
the ﬁve core personality factors –openness to experience, conscientiousness,
extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism –and the presidents’attempts to alter
their term limits. To test the theory, I use data about presidents who governed
from 1945 to 2012. The results of a discrete-time duration analysis show that three
of the Big Five are associated to the likelihood of observing a president changing
term limits. I conclude by discussing how this research agenda should be extended
to uncover how the uniqueness of the leaders explains relevant outcomes in
ARTICLE HISTORY Received 10 December 2020; Accepted 15 July 2021
KEYWORDS Presidents; term limits; Big Five; personality traits; Latin America
Presidents from every Latin American country but Mexico who were governing
from 1945 to 2012 tried to change or bypass the constitutions of their countries
to relax their term limits. Thirty-one leaders, 10% of all presidents who governed
for at least six months, tried forty times to loosen their term limits, and succeeded
on twenty-nine occasions (see the list in the online appendix). These attempts took
place across all regime types, and the leaders who succeeded retained power. This
overreaching behaviour allowed several heads of government to attain historical
prominence. For example, Juan Domingo Perón, Evo Morales, Daniel Ortega, and
Hugo Chávez dramatically changed the political paths of Argentina, Bolivia, Nicar-
agua, and Venezuela, respectively. Nonetheless, the consolidation of presidential
authority often led to the erosion of democratic norms and institutions, and even
to regime changes. Although there is a growing literature about the conditions
that lead to changes in term limits, it has mostly centred on the context in
© 2021 Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor & Francis Group
CONTACT Ignacio Arana Araya firstname.lastname@example.org
Supplemental data for this article can be accessed at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2021.1957838.
which presidents operate. Therefore, preceding research has obviated how the
uniqueness of presidents relates to their overreaching behaviour. This article pro-
poses for the ﬁrst time a theory that associates the Big Five personality traits of pre-
sidents to their attempts to relax their term limits.
Scholars tend to agree that presidents who alter or bypass the constitution to remain
in oﬃce erode political institutions and mine the foundations of the rule of law, signal-
ling that institutions can become a political weapon at the service of those who control
Researchers have also discussed how the incumbency advantage that accompa-
nies the relaxation of term limits dampens political competition.
made some scholars fear that overreaching presidents cannot be stopped and that they
may feel “invincible”.
In fact, many presidents who relax their term limits once, try
Research that has studied term limits have provided numerous insights on how the
institutional and political context explain the relaxation of term limits. However, exist-
ing explanations suﬀer an important key omission: the individual diﬀerences of presi-
dents. Although there is a research stream that has discussed the reasons why and how
Latin American leaders have tried to change their term limits,
a systematic compari-
son of the individual diﬀerences of overreaching presidents is still missing in a region
were personalismo has undermined democracy.
Historically, presidents have been protagonists of the constitutional reforms that
have allowed them to loosen their term limits. Arguably, chief executives have
strong motivations to relax their term limits. They can extend the privileges of
holding power, achieve their policy goals, and increase their inﬂuence due to their
enhanced capacity to enforce promises in intertemporal negotiations. Relaxing term
limits may also express a desire to stay in power unrestrictedly.
This article argues that the personality traits of leaders are necessary to under-
stand why certain leaders try to challenge existing term limits. It centres on the
“Big Five”core personality traits, a paradigm that has shown to be robust across
virtually all cultures.
The argument advanced implies treating the personality
traits of presidents as independent variables.
This approach allows us to answer
pressing questions about the relative importance of the uniqueness of presidents
in speciﬁc contexts.
It also enables us to revisit research in which presidential per-
sonalities were not considered as explanatory factors, even when they should have
been considered as such.
Why do presidents attempt to relax term limits?
Scholars have centred on four arguments to explain the instability of term limits. A ﬁrst
argument has focused on executive-legislative relations because presidents almost
always need congressional support to reform the constitution. Some authors
propose that institutionalized ruling parties have strong incentives to oppose over-
reaching leaders. Corrales argues that these parties do not have an urge to break the
rules to remain in power because they have a long-life expectancy, and therefore
expect to regain the presidency.
Furthermore, party leaders may also aspire to the
presidency, and therefore favour elite circulation. Kouba adds that institutionalized
parties can constrain presidents because heads of government need them to be
elected and to govern.
In contrast, deinstitutionalized parties are more submissive
to their leaders because their electoral fate is tied to them. The author found
2I. ARANA ARAYA
support for the hypothesis after analysing all Latin American presidents elected from
1990 to 2013.
Researchers have also explored the role of the presidents’legislative support. Oppo-
sition parties who expect to control the executive power are expected to ﬁght incum-
bents who want to remain in oﬃce.
However, opposition parties may be willing to
support the ﬂexibilization of term limits if they acquire concessions from the presi-
especially if they expect constitutional reforms to be inevitable and do not
anticipate to soon attain the presidency.
Another relevant factor in the executive-legislative argument centres on legislative
fractionalization. Negretto proposes –and ﬁnds –that electorally strong parties are
likely to favour permissive reelection rules because they expect to win the presidency,
while fragmented legislatures prefer more restrictive rules due to the uncertainty of
future electoral results.
McKie also associates electoral contests to constitutional
instability, claiming that low electoral competition induces strong parties to adopt per-
missive term limits. McKie found support for her argument after examining the 221
presidents from Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia who faced the end
of their terms from 1975 to 2018. In contrast, Lucardi and Almaraz propose that leg-
islative fragmentation does not lead to restrictive rules because it allows executives to
oﬀer selective payoﬀs to opposition parties.
A second argument centres on the presidents’institutional capacity to change term
limits. This capacity is expected to be contingent on diﬀerent factors. One is formal
constitutional powers: Kouba proposes that strong presidents are likely to enjoy
greater bargaining capacity to advance term limit changes.
Another factor is the
reelection rule. When it is fully proscribed, presidents face more opposition to relax
their term limits because the rule has become ingrained and most political actors
The case of Mexico may be illustrative: its revolution started as an uprising
against the reelection of Porﬁrio Díaz. The one-term limit adopted in 1911 and then
enshrined in the 1917 constitution has been enforced since then –except between
1927 and 1933, when a second non-consecutive term was constitutionally allowed.
A third factor is constitutional rigidity. Constitutions that are more diﬃcult to
amend experience fewer amendments,
constraining the presidents’capacity to
modify the charter.
A third argument asserts that presidents are more inclined to relax their term limits
when they can inﬂuence the judiciary.
Some presidential attempts to reform the con-
stitution have been deferred to courts. In these cases, independent courts can veto
overreaching presidents. For example, the Constitutional Tribunal of Colombia pre-
vented a third candidacy of Álvaro Uribe by declaring that his 2010 attempt to relax
term limits through a referendum was unconstitutional. However, leaders who infor-
mally control courts can use them to advance their reforms.
Aﬁnal argument centres on material motivations. Baturo proposed that leaders
have more incentives to stay in power as the value of holding oﬃce increases.
argued that oﬃces are more attractive in poorer countries and when there are
plenty of opportunities to extract rents from the economy. In these cases, heads of gov-
ernment are expected to see the oﬃce as a source of personal wealth. In contrast, step-
ping down may involve losing immunity and ﬁnancial stress. Similarly, Guliyev
claimed that post-communist countries abundant in natural resources oﬀer presidents
opportunities for patronage and clientelism that, in turn, can help them cling to
The Big Five and term limits
This article argues that the personalities of presidents explain their attempts to relax
their term limits. It centres on the Big Five factors of personality: openness to experi-
ence, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The Big Five
became the reigning personality paradigm in the nineties after decades of research
that analysed the language that people use to describe themselves and others.
allel to the consolidation of this paradigm, a consensus that personality traits tend to be
stable over time
and robust across virtually all cultures solidiﬁed.
The fact that personality traits are stable, universal, measurable, and that they
strongly impact our behaviour
allows us to treat them as explanatory factors in situ-
ations in which the uniqueness of individuals might become relevant. Unsurprisingly,
the Big Five paradigm has sparked personality research in diﬀerent social science dis-
ciplines, including political science.
A small subset within this research programme
has examined the Big Five of presidents.
Following Arana, there are numerous situations in which the personalities of
leaders can have an impact on the presidency.
Presidents have a unique relationship
with civil servants, voters, the legislature, the judiciary, and foreign actors. The charac-
teristics of leaders shape their behaviour, and therefore the outcomes we attribute to
them. Furthermore, the unique traits of leaders have electoral eﬀects because voters
evaluate their personalities when deciding whom to support.
Treating presidents merely as faceless rational actors who tried to adjust their term
limits based on their chances of success is an untenable assumption. Several of the
leaders who tried to remove their term limits did so under an unfavourable insti-
tutional environment. For example, presidents did not have a majority support in
the legislature in nine of the forty attempts to relax term limits, and in twenty-seven
of the attempts, the existing constitution demanded the support of at least three-
ﬁfths of the legislature to be amended. In contrast, most leaders who enjoyed a
majority in Congress or ﬂexible constitutions did not try to alter their term limits.
Examining the personalities of leaders allows us to have a deeper understanding of
the presidents’self-serving attempts to retain oﬃce.
Openness to experience
This trait reﬂects how broadly and deeply people think.
People high in openness tend
to be imaginative, intellectually curious, sensitive to aesthetics, attentive to inner feel-
ings, self-directed, sensation-seekers, adventurous, and prefer novel forms of stimu-
High openness to experience is related to unconventional behaviour, while
low openness is reﬂected in cautiousness and traditional thinking.
It is also the
trait most consistently associated with intelligence.
Research has documented that openness is positively associated with leftist ideol-
ogies both among politicians
Among average citizens, high
openness has been related to being more interested in politics.
Centred on American
presidents, Rubenzer et al. found that presidents who are more open to experience tend
to perform better in oﬃce.
The authors interpreted their ﬁnding as an expression of
the higher cognitive abilities linked to openness.
I hypothesize that presidents high in this trait are more likely to try to relax their
term limits. Overreaching leaders engage in a non-conventional behaviour; only a
4I. ARANA ARAYA
minority of presidents attempt to adapt the constitution to their preferences, and they
often engage in creative ways to remove their term limits.
For example, Evo Morales
of Bolivia was able to push the limits on reelection three times, ﬁrst with the enactment
of a new constitution and then with the subservient support of the Supreme Court in
2013 and the Constitutional Court in 2017. Third, presidents need to be adventurous
in trying to remove their term limits because the endeavour involves many uncertain-
ties and may fail. That happened to former Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who
in 2009 was ousted by the military to prevent him from overstaying in oﬃce. Finally,
openness has been associated with charismatic leadership.
Certainly, the ability of
presidents to motivate followers is instrumental for a self-serving reform. The legend-
ary appeal of Argentinean President Juan Domingo Perón helped him in the 1949 con-
stitutional reform that allowed his 1951 reelection.
Conscientious individuals embrace an organized life and adhere to discipline and
responsibility. They tend to exercise self-control, be eﬃcient, industrious, and strive
Conscientiousness is also associated to motivational stability, making
plans and carrying them out in an organized way.
Unsurprisingly, this trait is
linked to academic achievement at diﬀerent ages.
In contrast, low conscientiousness
is related to being lazy and careless.
Just as openness has been associated to the political left, high conscientiousness has
been related to conservatism.
The association seems straightforward given that con-
scientious individuals prefer order, social status quo, and hierarchies.
I hypothesize that conscientiousness is negatively associated to the presidential
attempts to remove term limits. The adherence to order, responsibility, and the
status quo are antithetical to these attempts. Such overreaching behaviour represents
a harsh departure from the status quo and breaks democratic norms of behaviour,
often onsetting political backlash.
Extraverted people tend to be warm, social, outspoken, active, high-spirited, dominant,
Extraverts enjoy social interactions, look for social support
in case of stress,
and tend to develop larger social networks.
As individuals open to
experience, extraverts are more likely to be considered charismatic. In contrast, intro-
verts are less spontaneous, more serious, and socially reserved.
Extraverted individuals tend to participate more in politics. For example, they are
more likely to discuss politics
and have a stronger party identiﬁcation.
centred on Italy found that politicians tend to be more extraverted than other citi-
The authors attributed the result in part to the politicians’higher need to be
energetic and to persuade and lead others.
I hypothesize that the presidents’extraversion is unrelated to presidential attempts
to relax term limits because its constituent characteristics push into diﬀerent direc-
tions. Arguably, the dominant facet of extraverts should make leaders strongly
dislike leaving oﬃce. Dominant individuals tend to lead and to control their circum-
stances, so they should not only enjoy staying in power but also have the skills to retain
it. Furthermore, the excitement-seeking nature of extraverts should also make them
feel comfortable in pursuing a self-serving constitutional reform. However, the warmth
and sociability of extraverts are traits that should deter overreaching attempts that
inevitably spark a political backlash and lead to political confrontations. That would
explain why former President “Lula”Da Silva of Brazil, who was a highly popular
extravert that enjoyed a congressional majority, did not try to overstay in oﬃce.
This trait reﬂects a disposition to maintain social stability and to be considerate of
others’needs and feelings.
Agreeable individuals tend to have pro-social behaviours,
be cooperative, tolerant, trusting, warm, polite, generous, kind, tender-minded, com-
passionate, and empathetic.
They do not like to impose their will on others. Instead,
they avoid conﬂict and enjoy positive social relations. Disagreeable people are selﬁsh,
outspoken, and demanding.
In contrast to extraversion, agreeableness has been related to less engagement in
political discussion networks.
Webster claims that this occurs because agreeable indi-
viduals are less likely to engage in political arguments with others, especially in periods
of high polarization.
The author also ﬁnds that agreeableness decreases the degree to
which individuals negatively view an opposing party. Agreeableness has also been
associated to political failure. After studying elected Belgians, Joly, Soroka, &
Loewen found that agreeableness is associated with lower chances of being elected,
time in oﬃce, and access to a political position.
I hypothesize that agreeableness is negatively related to the presidential attempts to
relax term limits. Presidents who prioritize to cooperate and have good relations with
other political actors are unlikely to engage in an overreaching behaviour that will
cause antagonism and opposition, and that will demand them to impose their will
on others. Precisely, such overreaching behaviour is more akin to notoriously disagree-
able leaders such as Fidel Castro, Evo Morales, and Hugo Chávez, all of whom removed
term limits to remain in power.
This trait reﬂects susceptibility to threat and the negative emotions that it sparks.
associated to impulsiveness, self-consciousness, irritation, anxiety, depression, vulner-
ability, low self-esteem, and negative moods.
People high in neuroticism have more
negative social interactions, engage in avoidance coping, and elude thinking about or
doing challenging things.
The opposite of this trait is emotional stability, expressed in
conﬁdence, calm, and detachment.
Mondak and Halperin found that higher neuroticism is related to stronger political
frustration and anger.
That might explain why politicians have been found to be less
neurotic than the general population.
Schoen and Schumann found that high neur-
oticism is linked to a greater likelihood of voting for parties that provide a notion of
security in Germany.
I hypothesize that neuroticism is positively associated to the presidential attempts to
loosen term limits. Like extraversion, the constituent facets of this trait seem to push
into opposite directions. The anxiety and negative feelings associated with neuroticism
could push presidents to avoid exposing themselves to challenging initiatives.
However, heads of government have already shown not to shy away from challenges
6I. ARANA ARAYA
in their pursuit of power. Presidents have not avoided campaigns, public speaking,
negotiations, and debates. Instead, the prospect of losing power should spark negative
feelings. Neurotic leaders should be more willing to believe that, once stepping down
from oﬃce, their rivals will go after them. There have been many cases where Latin
American leaders face litigations, exile, or prison after leaving the executive power.
Presidents high in neuroticism may perceive that losing oﬃce is a bigger threat than
the challenges entailed in relaxing term limits. Impulsiveness, frustration, and anger
are strong drivers of action, and the dissatisfaction of losing power should push neu-
rotic-prone presidents to change term limits.
The sample consists of 152 presidents who governed from 1945 to 2012 for at least six
The end of World War II is used as the starting point because it allows cov-
ering a large sample. Unfortunately, it is extremely diﬃcult to ﬁnd information about
many leaders for earlier years, especially heads of government from small and poorer
The unit of analysis is president-year and excludes the years in which chief execu-
tives did not face term limits (15% of the period). Democratic and nondemocratic
leaders are included because, although they govern under diﬀerent institutions and
practices, they have motivations to try to adjust the constitution to their preferences
and face challenges in such attempts. That explains why presidential attempts took
place across regime types: fourteen in democracies, fourteen in semidemocracies,
and twelve in autocracies. In any case, below I address whether the results change
when nondemocratic rulers are excluded.
To capture presidential behaviour, the dependent variable takes the value of one
when a leader attempted to change the constitution to relax his or her term limits
and zero if otherwise. Therefore, constitutional adjustments that only aﬀected sub-
sequent leaders are excluded. Presidents are considered to have attempted to relax
their term limits when they make a public, recorded attempt. These attempts were
identiﬁed from biographical data.
The successful attempts identiﬁed were corrobo-
rated with an examination of the national constitutions.
Because prominent individuals may be unreachable or unwilling to participate in
personality studies, researchers have developed techniques such as psychobiographies,
content analysis, historiometry, and expert surveys to study them at a distance. In this
study, the presidents’Big Five was measured using an online survey ﬁlled out by
Conducting the expert survey avoided the validity problems that may
emerge when using other at-a-distance methods that demand the examination of
documents, such as content analysis and historiometric research. While ﬁnding
reliable biographies was unfeasible for most of the leaders in the sample, identifying
experts was possible because many scholars on presidents can be found at universities,
think tanks, and media outlets. Therefore, consulting experts allowed access to the
most reliable and updated information.
To identify experts, a research team followed several steps. A search was conducted
in the WorldCat database using the keywords “presidents”and presidentes (for Spanish
and Portuguese), as well as diﬀerent versions of the leaders’names. Second, scholarly
publications about the leaders were examined in Google Scholar and Amazon. Third,
nearly 50 professional organizations of historians, political scientists, and journalists
were asked to identify potential experts. Finally, survey participants were asked to rec-
ommend scholars qualiﬁed to assess leaders.
In total, 361 experts from 29 nationalities ﬁlled out 531 online surveys in English,
Spanish, or Portuguese, assessing 152 leaders.
The mean number of evaluators per
head of state is three, suﬃcient for making reliable psychological analyses.
Notably, the participants were highly knowledgeable about the presidents; 216 ques-
tionnaires were answered by evaluators who had met the leaders at least once. To
account for potential biases, experts provided their gender, age, nationality, city of
residence, educational attainment, sympathy towards the president, approval of the
leader’s performance, number of times they met the chief of state (and if the contact
was professional, friendly, or familiar), and their ideology.
The measure of the Big Five is taken from the Big Five Inventory (BFI).
in Table 1, the BFI is composed of 44-items that measures the Big Five through short,
accessible phrases. Noticeably, the phrases are unrelated to political behaviour and
respondents were unaware of how the phrases relate to each personality trait. Respon-
dents were also asked to reﬂect on the presidents’characteristics before they reached
oﬃce, so their behaviour in the executive branch would not contaminate their percep-
tions. As is conventional in expert surveys,
the score for each leader represents the
average value that respondents assigned to them. For each factor, the scale ranged
between one and ﬁve.
Some potential concerns with the sample are that presidents may have similar per-
sonality traits and that there could be systematic cross-country diﬀerences. Figure 1
addresses these concerns, showing that there is notable variation across the personality
Table 1. Big-ﬁve inventory.
Here are a number of personality traits that may or may not apply to the president. Please indicate the extent to
which you agree or disagree with the following statements*:
(1) Was talkative
(2) Tended to ﬁnd fault with others
(3) Did a thorough job
(4) Was depressed, blue
(5) Was original, came up with new ideas
(6) Was reserved
(7) Was helpful and unselﬁsh with others
(8) Could be somewhat careless
(9) Was relaxed, handled stress well
(10) Was curious about many diﬀerent things
(11) Was full of energy
(12) Started quarrels with others
(13) Was a reliable worker
(14) Could be tense
(15) Was ingenious, a deep thinker
(16) Generated a lot of enthusiasm
(17) Had a forgiving nature
(18) Tended to be disorganized
(19) Worried a lot
(20) Had an active imagination
(21) Tended to be quiet
(22) Was generally trusting
(23) Tended to be lazy
(24) Was emotionally stable, not easily upset
(25) Was inventive
(26) Had an assertive personality
(27) Could be cold and aloof
(28) Persevered until the task was ﬁnished
(29) Could be moody
(30) Valued artistic, aesthetic experiences
(31) Was sometimes shy, inhibited
(32) Was considerate and kind to almost everyone
(33) Did things eﬃciently
(34) Remained calm in tense situations
(35) Preferred work that is routine
(36) Was outgoing, sociable
(37) Was sometimes rude to others
(38) Made plans and follows through with them
(39) Got nervous easily
(40) Liked to reﬂect, play w ith ideas
(41) Had few artistic interests
(42) Liked to cooperate with others
(43) Was easily distracted
(44) Was sophisticated in art, music, or literature
Source: Benet-Martinez and John (1998).
*Options: “Strongly disagree,”“Disagree,”“Neither agree nor disagree,”“Agree,”and “Strongly agree.”
8I. ARANA ARAYA
traits of presidents and that they do not follow a country pattern. Ultimately, whether
the variation observed has substantive eﬀects is an empirical question –one that is
Three variables capture the argument that associates executive-legislative relations
to changes in term limits.
Congress Support identiﬁes the proportion of the Lower
House that backs the president, Number of Parties measures the eﬀective number of
parties in the Lower House, and, like preceding works
,Party Age is a proxy for
the institutionalization of the ruling party.
The argument about presidential strength is captured through ﬁve variables. To
identify powerful presidencies, Legislative Powers and Non-Legislative Powers take
the value of one when presidential powers are one standard deviation above the
mean in Negretto’s scale and zero if otherwise.
Negretto’s database is used because
it is conceptually thorough and is the only one of its kind that covers the entire
period. No Reelection is a dichotomous variable that controls for the expectation
that presidents face more opposition when reelection is fully proscribed. Amendment
captures the requirements needed to change the constitution (i.e. constitutional
Figure 1. Big ﬁve across countries.
rigidity). It ranges from zero, when there is no Congress or need of congressional
support, to ﬁve, when the president needs more than two-thirds of the legislature to
reform the charter, plus an additional step (e.g. the support from a majority of state
legislatures). No Reelection and Amendment are taken from national constitutions.
Regime measures the competitiveness of access to power and is taken from V-Dem’s
Electoral Democracy Index.
It ranges from zero to one.
Higher Courts captures the argument about judicial independence by using a
measure of the extent to which the executive complies with court rulings and the judi-
ciary can act independently. It ranges from zero to one and is taken from V-Dem’s
Judicial Constraints on the Executive Index.
The proposition that presidents are
more likely to overstay in oﬃce in poorer countries because the value of holding
oﬃce in them is higher is captured through GDP per Capita (measured in 2000 US
$), a proxy for economic development. The source is the World Bank.
Since the dependent variable reﬂects the presidents’attempts to change or bypass the
charters of their countries, and because the hypotheses refer to individual predictors, I
estimate discrete-time duration models in which the unit of analysis is president-year.
Using this technique, once a president tries to relax his or her term limits, the leader
becomes censored and drops from the sample. A longitudinal analysis is conducted to
consider how presidents time their attempts and to include controls that change over
time. Cubic polynomials are included to control for temporal dependence and mini-
mize biased estimations when using binary data.
Therefore, Time in Oﬃce (also
squared and cubed) captures the years presidents have governed.
Table 2 presents seven probit models. Model 2.1 includes only the conventional
arguments about the extension of term limits. Model 2.2 adds the Big Five to 2.1
and presents the benchmark model. Model 2.3 only considers the successful presiden-
tial attempts to examine whether the results change if failed attempts are excluded.
Models 2.4–2.7 are robustness checks. Model 2.4 addresses the bias that could occur
if some of the experts’characteristics aﬀected their assessments. Inspired in previous
model 2.4 reruns 2.2, excluding experts who strongly approved or disap-
proved of the leaders’performances. The experts’approval is excluded because it is
one of the two experts’characteristics that correlated above .20 with one of the
scores the leaders received.
Model 2.5 follows the Heckman’s two-stage procedure
and includes the Inverse Mills Ratio (IMR) as a variable.
This is done to account
for a potential censored selection eﬀect that could occur because I did not ﬁnd
experts to assess 150 presidents (i.e. only certain types of leaders might have been
The sample would also be aﬀected by endogeneity bias if experts assessed the pre-
sidents’Big Five based on whether the leaders tried to relax their term limits or not.
Endogeneity should not be a problem because, as mentioned, experts were asked to
reﬂect on the presidents’characteristics before they reached oﬃce when completing
the survey. Additionally, the BFI phrases –e.g. whether a leader “was talkative”–
are unrelated to presidential behaviour. However, to be conservative, ﬁve probit
extended regression models with instrumental variables (IV) were estimated. Due to
space constraints, they are presented in Table 3 in the online appendix. The results
10 I. ARANA ARAYA
Table 2. Presidential attempts to relax term limits.
(2.1) (2.2) (2.3) (2.4) (2.5) (2.6) (2.7)
Neither Puppets nor
Openness 1.11** 1.55** 0.91** 1.14** 1.22* 1.13**
(0.51) (0.77) (0.43) (0.53) (0.67) (0.51)
Conscientiousness −0.67* −0.65 −0.80** −0.68* −0.35 −0.69*
(0.36) (0.44) (0.38) (0.37) (0.45) (0.36)
Extraversion 0.29 1.13* 0.15 0.28 0.55 0.28
(0.33) (0.61) (0.33) (0.33) (0.40) (0.33)
Agreeableness −0.23 −0.85 −0.58 −0.21 0.36 −0.15
(0.37) (0.52) (0.43) (0.37) (0.47) (0.37)
Neuroticism 1.20** 1.05 0.96** 1.23** 1.85** 1.28**
(0.59) (0.82) (0.45) (0.62) (0.80) (0.59)
Congress Support 0.54 0.45 2.32 1.57 0.35 1.76 0.57
(0.86) (1.10) (1.54) (1.22) (1.15) (1.59) (1.11)
Number of Parties −0.07 −0.01 0.04 0.15 −0.03 −0.14 0.01
(0.11) (0.13) (0.17) (0.15) (0.15) (0.18) (0.13)
Party Age (log) −0.28** −0.56*** −0.66** −0.63*** −0.56*** −0.73*** −0.57***
(0.12) (0.18) (0.26) (0.18) (0.18) (0.28) (0.18)
Leg. Powers 0.62* 0.78* 0.67 0.90** 0.78* 1.01 0.80*
(0.36) (0.45) (0.52) (0.45) (0.45) (0.67) (0.45)
Non-Leg. Powers 0.23 0.38 0.11 0.84 0.34 0.00 0.37
(0.62) (0.79) (0.96) (0.82) (0.80) (.) (0.79)
No Reelection 0.47 0.98** 0.40 0.77* 0.98** 1.31** 0.96**
(0.35) (0.45) (0.53) (0.42) (0.46) (0.56) (0.45)
Amendment 0.06 0.15 −0.09 0.20 0.15 0.26 0.17
(0.10) (0.14) (0.18) (0.16) (0.14) (0.19) (0.14)
Regime 3.03** 2.52 4.45* 3.30* 2.59 0.85 2.46
(1.27) (1.67) (2.33) (1.75) (1.68) (1.83) (1.67)
Higher Courts −3.55*** −4.56*** −8.13*** −4.81*** −4.50*** −4.83*** −4.55***
(0.95) (1.24) (2.05) (1.32) (1.25) (1.70) (1.24)
GDP per Cap. (log) 0.14 0.26 1.35** 0.42 0.19 0.26 0.27
(0.27) (0.34) (0.60) (0.35) (0.42) (0.43) (0.34)
Time in Oﬃce 0.80** 1.51*** 2.17** 1.69*** 1.53*** 1.26 1.55***
(0.35) (0.54) (0.94) (0.58) (0.55) (1.29) (0.55)
Table 2. Continued.
(2.1) (2.2) (2.3) (2.4) (2.5) (2.6) (2.7)
Neither Puppets nor
Time in Oﬃce2 −0.20** −0.33** −0.46** −0.38*** −0.33** −0.04 −0.34***
(0.09) (0.13) (0.21) (0.14) (0.13) (0.56) (0.13)
Time in Oﬃce3 0.01** 0.02** 0.03** 0.02*** 0.02** −0.03 0.02**
(0.01) (0.01) (0.01) (0.01) (0.01) (0.07) (0.01)
Constant −2.31** −7.68** −11.55* −5.90* −7.62** −12.82** −8.29**
(0.92) (3.55) (5.95) (3.25) (3.59) (5.39) (3.61)
Observations 529 529 529 496 529 362 514
Presidents 107 107 107 99 107 77 104
*p<0.1, **p<0.05, ***p<0.01.
12 I. ARANA ARAYA
show that, after using biographical data about the leaders as instruments, the results
presented in the benchmark model hold for each of the Big Five.
Models 2.6 and 2.7 test the theory on subsamples. Model 2.6 excludes nondemo-
cratic leaders to explore whether the results change when only leaders who govern
under democratic norms and institutions are included. I follow the classiﬁcation of
Boix, Miller, and Rosato,
who regard a country as democratic when politicians are
chosen through free and fair elections and a minimal level of suﬀrage. Model 2.7
excludes heads of government who may not have had enough support to reform the
constitution because they were either interim (i.e. they served to complete someone
else’s term) or “puppets”(i.e. they governed under the orders of someone else).
Model 2.1 shows that only Party Age is statistically signiﬁcant among the variables
that capture the argument about executive-legislative relations; presidents are less
likely to try to relax their term limits when they belong to institutionalized parties.
In the argument about presidential strength, both Legislative Powers and Regime are
positively associated to the presidential attempts. As proposed by the argument
about judicial independence, Higher Courts is negatively associated to the attempts.
GDP per Capita, the variable used to capture the argument about the value of
holding oﬃce for the president, is unrelated to the presidential attempts.
Model 2.2 renders support for four of the ﬁve hypotheses. As expected, Openness
and Neuroticism are positively associated to presidential attempts, Conscientiousness
decreases the likelihood of observing a presidential attempt, and Extraversion is unre-
lated to the presidents’overreaching behaviour. Unexpectedly, Agreeableness is also
unrelated to the attempts. These results hold when extreme raters (2.4) are excluded,
when the Heckman two-stage procedure is followed (2.5), and in the samples that
exclude nondemocratic leaders (2.6) and puppets and interim leaders (2.7). The
only meaningful change occurs when Conscientiousness loses statistical signiﬁcance
in 2.6, perhaps because of the 32% smaller sample size. Model 2.2 also shows that
when the Big Five are included, Regime loses statistical signiﬁcance while No Reelection
gains it. These changes suggest that not including the personality traits of presidents
leads to model misspeciﬁcation.
Figure 2 shows the predicted probabilities that presidents will try to relax their term
limits at diﬀerent levels of Openness,Neuroticism, and Conscientiousness. The histo-
gram in the background shows the values on which the predicted probabilities are
based. Noticeably, presidents tend to be open to experience and conscientious,
whereas neuroticism is closer to a normal probability distribution. When Openness
is at its mean (3.3), the chances of observing a presidential attempt are approximately
4%. However, the probability grows up to 26% with the extreme observed value of
Figure 2. Predicted probabilities of presidential attempts.
Notes: Shadows show the 95% conﬁdence interval.
5. The chances of observing an attempt when Neuroticism is at its mean value (2.8) are
only 3%, but they grow to 19% at the highest value in the sample (4.1). Finally, a
minimum level of conscientiousness (2.1) is associated to a 10% chance of observing
an attempt, while the probability falls below 3% at values above the mean (3.5). In
sum, Figure 2 shows that three of the Big Five are relevant to explain the overreaching
behaviour of presidents, and that leaders with extreme openness and neuroticism may
threaten the stability of term limits.
Some cases can illustrate the personality traits in action. Presidents have tried to
relax their term limits despite not enjoying a congressional majority, such as Hugo
Chávez of Venezuela, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.
Compared to the mean president, these leaders received higher scores in Openness
and Neuroticism, and equal or lower in Conscientiousness (except Correa). In the
sample, the means for Openness,Neuroticism, and Conscientiousness are 3.3, 2.8, and
3.5, respectively. For the same traits, Chávez scored 3.9, 3.3, and 3.2, Correa 4, 3.5,
and 4.4, and Ortega 3.3, 3.5, and 3.5. To overcome the minority status, Chávez and
Correa convoked constituent assemblies that gave them a majority, while Ortega got
the authorization to rerun for oﬃce from a subservient Supreme Court. In sum, the
three leaders creatively surmounted institutional barriers.
In contrast, presidents who faced a favourable context to relax their term limits
arguably did not try in part due to their traits. For example, in his ﬁrst term, Tabaré
Vázquez of Uruguay was popular, enjoyed a majority in Congress, and was under
pressure to adapt the constitution to be allowed to be reelected.
In the expert
survey, Vázquez scored lower than average in Openness (2.9) and Neuroticism (2.4)
and slightly higher than average in Conscientiousness (3.6).In concordance to his per-
sonality traits, Vázquez declined to change the constitution.
While Openness,Neuroticism, and Conscientiousness explain presidential attempts,
model 2.3 showed that Extraversion and Openness explain successful attempts (pre-
dicted probabilities are shown in the online appendix). While more research is
needed to uncover the diﬀerences between 2.2 and 2.3, Extraversion and Openness
arguably provide useful resources to succeed in diﬃcult negotiations. To begin with,
both are highly related with charisma, a trait strongly associated to leadership
In particular, the creativity, non-conventional behaviour, adventurousness,
and intellectual brilliance of individuals open to experience are skills that should help
presidents navigate the sinuous process of relaxing term limits. The dominance aspect
of extraversion and its inclination to lead others, control circumstances, and seek exci-
tement may also explain presidential success in persuading other actors to reform the
Further robustness checks (Table 5 in the online appendix) show that the leaders’
age is unrelated to the attempts, but leftist leaders are more likely to try to retain
oﬃce. While further research is needed to uncover if this result is a coincidence or
is rooted in ideology, revealingly, the impact of ideology in the attempts is independent
from the eﬀect of Openness despite the correlation between the two variables. Interest-
ingly, whether the chief executives and their allies are committed to democracy (their
normative preferences) and whether they embrace radical policy goals are unrelated to
the attempts. A retest of the executive-legislative argument shows that party power
concentration at the national or subnational governments inhibits the attempts, rein-
forcing the constraining eﬀect of party institutionalization identiﬁed across models in
Table 2. Finally, presidents have become more prone to relax term limits since the
14 I. ARANA ARAYA
onset of the region’s third wave of democracy (in 1978), suggesting that in the last
decades leaders with authoritarian proclivities have increasingly chosen to assault con-
stitutions to consolidate their power.
This article shows that the personality traits of presidents are relevant when explaining
why some of them attempt to relax their term limits. Focusing on presidential person-
alities complemented previous studies that centred on the institutional and political
context that surround the heads of government. Under convenient circumstances,
leaders who are more open to experience, more neurotic, and less conscientious are
more likely to attempt to change term limits. The results show that favourable circum-
stances exist when presidents enjoy strong legislative powers, lead new parties and no
single party controls much of national or subnational governments, immediate reelec-
tion is forbidden, and higher courts are not fully independent.
This study is a ﬁrst step in exploring how the individual diﬀerences of presidents are
related to their attempts to relax term limits. Further research should uncover how the
facets or constituent traits of the Big Five relate to the attempts. As discussed for extra-
version and neuroticism, each of the Big Five are composed of facets that may push
into diﬀerent or even opposite directions. Furthermore, a thorough examination of
individual diﬀerences that unrelated to personalities, such as the leaders’life trajectory,
should unveil more characteristics of overreaching presidents.
More broadly, the focus on the personality traits of leaders seems urgent. For too
long, quantitative research in political science has neglected examining how the
uniqueness of the most powerful politicians impact executive governance. Arguably,
the presidents’powers and interaction with institutions and actors oﬀer innumerable
situations in which the uniqueness of leaders can make a diﬀerence. A rigorous exam-
ination of these situations will also allow us to revisit and expand theories and ﬁndings
in which the individual diﬀerences likely made a diﬀerence but were ignored in pre-
A pressing question is to examine whether presidential personalities can shape pol-
itical regimes. The world is undergoing a wave of autocratization in which the behav-
iour of heads of government is usually a leading force in the often gradual –but
sometimes abrupt –erosion of democratic norms and institutions. One of the big
threats to democracies today, populism, often grows due to the ﬂamboyant personal-
ities of leaders. Closely examining how the unique characteristics of heads of govern-
ment explain the assault on democratic norms and institutions can help prevent the
negative outcomes associated with a more authoritarian world.
1. Kouba, “Party Institutionalization”; Penfold, Corrales, and Hernández, “Los Invencibles.”
2. Penfold, Corrales, and Hernández, “Los Invencibles”; Corrales, “Can Anyone Stop.”
4. Kouba, “Party Institutionalization.”
5. Marsteintredet, “Presidential Term Limits”; Klesner, “The Politics of Presidential.”
6. Rhodes-Purdy and Madrid, “The Perils of Personalism.”
7. McCrae and Costa, “Personality Trait Structure”; Benet-Martínez and John, “Los Cinco
Grandes”; McCrae, “The Five-Factor Model.”
8. Arana, “The Personalities of Presidents.”
9. Arana, “Cómo Evaluar.”
10. Corrales, “Can Anyone Stop.”
11. Kouba, “Party Institutionalization.”
12. Corrales, “Can Anyone Stop.”
13. Negretto, Making Constitutions.
14. Lucardi and Almaraz, “With a Little.”
15. Negretto, Making Constitutions.
16. Lucardi and Almaraz, “With a Little.”
17. Kouba, “Party Institutionalization.”
18. Ibid.; Negretto, Making Constitutions, 87.
19. Klesner, “The Politics of Presidential.”
20. Lijphart, Patterns of Democracy.
21. Martínez-Barahona, “Constitutional Courts”; Kouba, “Party Institutionalization.”
22. Ibid.; Corrales, “Can Anyone Stop”; Arana, “What Drives Evo’s.”
23. Baturo, Democracy, Dictatorship.
24. Guliyev, “End of Term Limits.”
25. McCrae and Costa, “Personality Trait Structure”; McCrae, “The Five-Factor Model.”
26. Corr and Matthews, The Cambridge Handbook.
27. McCrae and Costa, “Personality Trait Structure.”
28. Costa and McCrae, “Normal Personality.”
29. Gerber et al., “Personality and the Strength”; Mondak, Personality and the Foundations;
Mondak and Halperin, “A Framework.”
30. Rubenzer, Faschingbauer, and Ones, “Assessing the U.S. Presidents”; Rubenzer and Fasching-
bauer, Personality, Character, and Leadership; Arana, “The Personalities of Presidents”; Arana
and Guerrero, “Executive-Legislative Relations.”
31. Arana, “The Personalities of Presidents.”
32. Caprara and Zimbardo, “Personalizing Politics.”
33. Costa and McCrae, “Normal Personality”; McCrae and Costa, “Personality Trait Structure.”
34. Dollinger, Leong, and Ulicni, “On Traits and Values”; Swickert, “30 Personality.”
35. Swickert, “30 Personality.”
36. DeYoung and Gray, “Personality Neuroscience.”
37. Best, “Does Personality Matter”; Caprara et al., “Personalities of Politicians.”
38. Mondak and Halperin, “A Framework”; Mondak, Personality and the Foundations.
39. Mondak and Halperin, “A Framework.”
40. Rubenzer, Faschingbauer, and Ones, “Assessing the U.S. Presidents.”
41. Arana, “What Drives Evo’s.”
42. Oreg and Berson, “Personality and Charismatic.”
43. Swickert, “30 personality”; Chamorro-Premuzic and Furnham, “Personality Traits.”
44. DeYoung and Gray, “Personality Neuroscience.”
45. Chamorro-Premuzic and Furnham, “Personality Traits.”
46. Mondak, Personality and the Foundations; Mondak and Halperin, “AFramework.”
47. Pervin and John, Handbook of Personality.
48. Costa and McCrae, “The NEO Personality”; Swickert, “30 Personality.”
49. McCrae and Costa, “Personality, Coping.”
50. Russell et al., “Personality, Social Networks.”
51. Hibbing, Ritchie, and Anderson, “Personality and Political Discussion.”
52. Gerber et al., “Personality and the Strength.”
53. Caprara et al., “Personalities of Politicians.”
54. DeYoung and Gray, “Personality Neuroscience.”
55. Swickert, “30 Personality”; DeYoung and Gray, “Personality Neuroscience.”
56. Swickert, “30 Personality.”
57. Mondak and Halperin, “A Framework.”
58. Webster, “It’s Personal.”
59. Joly, Soroka, and Loewen, “Nice Guys Finish.”
60. DeYoung and Gray, “Personality Neuroscience.”
61. Ibid; Swickert, “30 Personality.”
16 I. ARANA ARAYA
62. De Raad and Schouwenburg, “Personality in Learning.”
63. Mondak and Halperin, “A Framework.”
64. Best, “Does Personality Matter.”
65. Schoen and Schumann, “Personality Traits.”
66. A total of 302 presidents governed in this period, but expert assessments were only obtainable
for 152 leaders. The study excludes the six juntas in which no member acted as president and
the 76 transient leaders who governed for less than six months.
67. Sources are presented in the online appendix. Research assistants coded the biographies.
68. Arana Araya, “Presidential Database.”
69. The survey was emailed to 911 experts and the response rate was 40%.
70. Rubenzer and Faschingbauer, Personality, Character, and Leadership, 319.
71. Benet-Martínez and John, “Los Cinco Grandes.”
72. Steenbergen and Marks, “Evaluating Expert Judgments.”
73. There are no observations for years in which there was no Congress.
74. Kouba, “Party Institutionalization”; Corrales, “Can Anyone Stop”; Negretto, Making
75. The data are taken from Pérez-Liñán, Schmidt, and Vairo, “Presidential Hegemony.”
76. Negretto, Making Constitutions.
77. Coppedge et al., V-dem Dataset v11.1.
79. World Bank, “Indicators.”
80. Carter and Signorino, “Back to the Future.”
81. Martínez i Coma and Van Ham, “Can Experts Judge”; Rubenzer and Faschingbauer, Person-
ality, Character, and Leadership.
82. The other variable is the experts’sympathy toward the leaders, which correlates at .81 with the
83. Heckman, “The Common Structure.”The ﬁrst stage model is presented on the online
84. Boix, Miller, and Rosato, A Complete Data Set.
85. This data is taken from Mainwaring and Pérez-Liñán, Democracies and Dictatorships.
86. Psetizki, “Uruguay.”
87. Oreg and Berson, “Personality and Charismatic.”
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author(s).
Notes on contributor
Ignacio Arana Araya is an Assistant Teaching Professor in the Institute for Politics and Strategy at
Carnegie Mellon University. He specializes in presidential behavior and in the comparative study
of political institutions in Latin America.
Ignacio Arana Araya http://orcid.org/0000-0002-8251-5598
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