Despite the familiar belief that candidates must appeal to the “moderate middle” of the voting public in order to win elections, U.S. presidential candidates routinely take less-than moderate positions on a variety of issues. Are they catering to the extreme views of their respective core supporters? This study finds that Republican presidential candidates are generally more responsive to the views of their base voters than Democratic candidates, but neither party’s candidates are more than minimally responsive to the preferences of the swing voters whose views define the center of the political spectrum. The study was published as part of a special issue.
“If extremism is a problem in presidential politics, it seems to be at least as much of a problem for Democrats as for Republicans,” writes the study author, “My findings provide ample grounds for alarm for anyone who believes that presidential candidates should be responsive to the views of swing voters.”
The author, Larry M. Bartels, concluded that the candidates’ unresponsiveness to swing voters is not merely a reflection of the influence of core party members. The parties’ respective bases have indeed become more polarized in recent years, with the Republican base making the more substantial shift. However, candidates’ positions are frequently even more “extreme” than those of their core supporters.
The logic of electoral competition suggests that candidates should have to adopt moderate issue positions to win majority support. But U.S. presidential candidates consistently take relatively extreme positions on a variety of important issues. Some observers have attributed these “polarized” positions to the extreme views of the parties’ core supporters. I characterize the issue preferences of core Republicans, core Democrats, and swing voters over the past three decades and assess how well the positions of presidential candidates reflect those preferences. I find that Republican candidates have generally been responsive to the positions of their base. However, Democratic candidates have often been even more extreme than the Democratic base, suggesting that electoral polarization is due in significant part to candidates’ own convictions rather than the need to mollify core partisans. Neither party’s presidential candidates have been more than minimally responsive to the views of swing voters.
Larry M. Bartels0
Failure to Converge: Presidential Candidates, Core Partisans, and the Missing Middle in American Electoral Politics
The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science September 2016 667: 143-165, doi:10.1177/0002716216661145