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Study finds that views of swing voters do not matter much to presidential candidates

August 17, 2016

Los Angeles, CA (August 17, 2016) 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? A new study out today 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 of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science (a journal from SAGE Publishing) titled "Elections in America."

"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, Larry M. Bartels of Vanderbilt University. "My findings provide ample grounds for alarm for anyone who believes that presidential candidates should be responsive to the views of swing voters."

Bartels compared the positions of presidential candidates from 1980 to 2012 on a variety of political issues to the preferences of swing voters and of their own core supporters. He used data from American National Election Studies surveys, utilizing a "liberal-to-conservative" 100-point scale and adding viewpoints on government spending, government jobs, aid to African Americans, and defense spending.

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 idea that candidates' positions reflect strategic compromises between the preferences of core partisans and swing voters fares poorly here," Bartels wrote. "Perhaps they reflect the influence of much smaller, more extreme subsets of 'intense policy demanders' or big donors, activist groups, and grassroots conservative or liberal organizations distinct from the larger cadres of core partisans."
-end-
Find out more by reading the full article, "Failure to Converge: Presidential Candidates, Core Partisans, and the Missing Middle in American Electoral Politics," by Larry M. Bartels, in The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. For an embargoed copy of the full text, please email tiffany.medina@sagepub.com.

This article is a part of the September 2016 special issue of The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, guest edited by Larry M. Bartels. The special issue is focused on party politics, campaigns, voting behavior, and electoral accountability.

The special issue, "Elections in America," includes the following nine articles and findings:

"The Electoral Landscape of 2016"
Fundamental predictors of election outcomes, such as economic conditions and cycles of incumbency, did not clearly favor either party going into the 2016 election. However, the Democratic Party is likely to see an advantage due to a growing share of nonwhite voters. (Sides, Tesler, and Vavreck)

"The Obama Legacy and the Future of Partisan Conflict: Demographic Change and Generational Imprinting"
Forecasting future elections, the Democratic party will likely have an advantage due to their generational gains among young white voters and increasing demographic diversity, which combined to produce a three-to-two Democratic advantage among young voters. (Jacobson)

"Back to the Future? What the Politics of the Late-Nineteenth Century Can Tell Us About the 2016 Election"
America may see a new political era if issues related to economic populism eclipse current political conflicts around race and the size of government. (Azari and Hetherington)

"What The Heck Are We Doing in Ottumwa, Anyway? Presidential Candidate Visits and Their Political Consequence"
Candidate visits only have modest effects on local media and do not reliably influence voters. (Wood)

"Ideologically Extreme Candidates in U.S. Presidential Elections, 1948-2012"
There's little evidence that voters punish presidential candidates for ideological extremism. (Cohen, McGrath, Aronow, and Zaller)

"Failure to Converge: Presidential Candidates, Core Partisans, and the Missing Middle in American Electoral Politics"
Presidential candidates are only minimally responsive to swing voters, and often take even more extreme positions than their partisan bases prefer. (Bartels)

"Ideological Factions in the Republican and Democratic Parties"
The cleavage between the Democratic party's ideological wing (supportive of the party's core principles) and its pragmatic wing (supportive of the compromises necessary to govern) is mild. The cleavage among Republicans, though, is much starker and provided an opening for Donald Trump. (Noel)

"Rise of the Trumpenvolk: Populism in the 2016 Election"
Compared to Bernie Sanders, Marco Rubio, or Ted Cruz, Trump built a broader populist coalition by appealing to three distinct groups: voters who distrust experts, anti-elitists, and strong nationalists. (Oliver and Rahn)

"Polarization, Gridlock, and Presidential Campaign Politics in 2016"
The 2016 nomination campaigns have exposed deep fissures within as well as between the parties, but the result may simply be to renew and reinforce the partisan gridlock that gripped Washington through most of Barack Obama's presidency. (Jacobson)

Sara Miller McCune founded SAGE Publishing in 1965 to support the dissemination of usable knowledge and educate a global community. SAGE is a leading international provider of innovative, high-quality content publishing more than 950 journals and over 800 new books each year, spanning a wide range of subject areas. Our growing selection of library products includes archives, data, case studies and video. SAGE remains majority owned by our founder and after her lifetime will become owned by a charitable trust that secures the company's continued independence. Principal offices are located in Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Washington DC and Melbourne. http://www.sagepublishing.com

Since 1889, The American Academy of Political and Social Science has served as a forum for the free exchange of ideas among the well informed and intellectually curious. In this era of specialization, few scholarly periodicals cover the scope of societies and politics like The ANNALS. Each volume is guest edited by outstanding scholars and experts in the topics studied and presents more than 200 pages of timely, in-depth research on a significant topic of concern. ann.sagepub.com

SAGE

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