New model of polarization sheds light on today's politics

October 03, 2018

No politics is local anymore and it's driving us apart, according to a new mathematical model of political competitiveness developed by Mattias Polborn, professor of economics at Vanderbilt University, and Stefan Krasa, professor of economics at the University of Illinois. Their paper, Political Competition in Legislative Elections, appears in the American Political Science Review.

This new model represents the fundamental competitive forces in legislative elections as they unfold today, and is the first to consider the impact of outside elections on voters' choices. It also helps explain how gerrymandering contributes to polarization--even in non-gerrymandered districts.

*Voters care about all elections, not just theirs*

The most popular way of thinking about electoral politics--known as the median voter theory--goes that elections should always be a fight for the moderates, because candidates are unlikely to draw more partisan voters to the other side.

The problem is that the median voter theory has not accurately described the state of U.S. legislative elections for the past 40 years. We are much more polarized than we used to be--or should be, according to that theory.

The flaw, the researchers surmised, is that the median voter theory assumes that voters are only interested in the election they themselves are voting in--that their only concern is which of their district's candidates best reflects their own views. However, as anyone who has watched a local campaign ad featuring House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi or President Donald Trump can attest, that's not how voters think anymore.

"What we point out in this paper is that in many elections they are effectively linked across the country," Polborn said. Today's voters also care a lot about how their votes will affect the overall balance of power between the parties in the legislature--sometimes more than they care about their district's candidates themselves.

For example, a moderately conservative voter might actually have more policy preferences in common with a moderate Democrat than an ultra-conservative Republican. According to the median voter theory, he or she should be more inclined to vote for the Democrat than the Republican.

However, if that voter is otherwise so turned off by the Democratic Party that they don't want to give them more power in the legislature, the voter is more likely to cast their ballot for the ultra-conservative Republican despite their policy differences.

The median voter theory does not take this strategic hedge into account. But when you do, as Polborn and Krasa have, it reveals that in less competitive districts the influence of the national party on voter's choices becomes so great that the local parties have no incentive to nominate a compromise candidate at all.

*Polarization begets polarization*

The result is that districts are increasingly electing legislators who are more extreme than most of their constituents. And when those legislators go to Washington, they help drive the national parties themselves even further apart.

"That's not to say [party affiliation] cannot be overcome, but it's really difficult, and it becomes more difficult the more polarized the parties become," Polborn said. The further apart the national parties get, the harder it gets for a local candidate to attract voters from the other party.

"But it's not something that seems to make people who live in the district really happy, and it doesn't seem to make the country really happy," said Polborn. "So if this is true, that people aren't happy, our model indicates that this a problem we'd have to address somehow by institutional changes."

*Policy changes could help*

One target could be partisan gerrymandering. While much of academic literature treats gerrymandering as a highly localized problem, only affecting the people of that district, Polborn said his model helps explain how it spills over to impact the rest of the country as well. "We have here what we think is a quite plausible story that if the candidates in the gerrymandered districts become more extreme, that would be of interest to other people who live in non-gerrymandered districts." Because gerrymandering can give rise to more extreme candidates, he explained, these districts further contribute to the polarization of their respective parties, which in turn exacerbates moderate voters' fears even more.

Another solution, Polborn speculated, might be increasing coordination between local parties to choose nominees more strategically in order to maximize overall nationwide gains. In other words: Make sure your district's candidate isn't so extreme they scare off potential swing voters in other districts. "These more-extreme candidates are not the ones in danger of losing their elections. They're generally in very secure districts," Polborn said. "But they can be very costly to other districts. This is something that is becoming more and more important for parties to think about."

Vanderbilt University

Related Elections Articles from Brightsurf:

How Twitter takes votes away from Trump but not from Republicans
In the 2016 US presidential election, Twitter made independent voters less likely to vote for Donald Trump, finds new study from Bocconi University and Princeton

Forecasting elections with a model of infectious diseases
Election forecasting is an innately challenging endeavor, with results that can be difficult to interpret and may leave many questions unanswered after close races unfold.

Coordinated efforts on Twitter to interfere in US elections are foreign-based
An analysis of more than 2.2 million tweets has found a coordinated effort to influence the upcoming U.S. presidential election by sowing distrust, exacerbating political divisions and undermining confidence in American democracy.

New research determines if political "air war" or "ground game" is most effective
CATONSVILLE, MD, October 7, 2020 - New research has shed light on how various political campaign activities influence voters.

Friend-to-friend texting may be the most effective voter mobilization tactic during 2020 election
DSI postdoctoral fellow Aaron Schein studies text messaging and voter engagement during pandemic-related social distancing.

Higher narcissism may be linked with more political participation
A politically engaged electorate is key to any thriving democracy, but not everyone participates in elections and other political activities.

A change at the top before elections boosts MP turnover across Europe, research shows
Appointing a new leader just before an election leads to a higher turnover of MPs after the poll, a study of political parties across Europe during the past 80 years shows.

Paper ballots, risk-limiting audits can help defend elections and democracy, study finds
With just over two months before the 2020 election, three professors at the Indiana University Kelley School of Business offer a comprehensive review of how other nations are seeking to protect their democratic institutions and presents how a multifaceted, targeted approach is needed to achieve that goal in the U.S., where intelligence officials have warned that Russia and other rivals are again attempting to undermine our democracy.

Survey finds election concerns vary by race, education levels, party affiliation
The coronavirus pandemic is creating concerns about the safety of the 2020 elections, with some people also questioning the integrity of the safety precautions being taken.

Mandatory vote-by-mail modestly increases voter turnout without giving either party an edge in elections, study suggests
Mandatory vote-by-mail modestly increases voter turnout without advantaging one party over the other, according to a causal inference analysis of 30 years of nationwide US county-level data and more than 40 million individual-level voter records from the states of Washington and Utah.

Read More: Elections News and Elections Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to