Carnegie Mellon University
October 17, 2014

CMU Research Shows Highly Competitive Elections Create Extremely Polarizing Politics

By Mark Burd / 412-268-3486

PITTSBURGH—Close elections fuel extreme ideological differences in party nominees. And that appeals to voters, say researchers at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business.

Researchers at CMU's Tepper School of Business have studied voter behavior and found that when contests are perceived to be highly competitive, voters on both sides of the political spectrum tend to favor candidates who are more strongly conservative or liberal, depending on their personal creed. This contradicts conventional wisdom, which would suggest that close elections should generate more candidates that appeal to a moderate or centrist ideology in order to capture a broader spectrum of voters. The findings may also help to explain why American voters have elected so many polarizing figures on each side of the political debate.
The Tepper School's Rosalind Chow, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory, Ph.D. candidate Jin Wook Chang and Nazli Turan (TPR'14), an assistant professor at Catolica Lisbon University in Portugal, detail their study of voter behavior in a paper titled "A desire for deviance: The influence of leader normativeness and inter-group competition on group member support." This research is slated to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Volume 56, January 2015.
The researchers conducted a series of three experiments, the first of which presented subjects with a hypothetical primary election in the United States and observed whether the participant's preference for an extreme leader was altered by their perception of how competitive the election would be. The study found that when an electoral district was described as "hotly contested" between Republicans and Democrats, Democratic participants were more likely to choose an extreme liberal from a lineup of primary candidates than when the district was described as being "safe."

The second study, which was conducted shortly before the 2012 Presidential election, found that both Democratic and Republican participants were more supportive of a more ideologically extreme version of Barack Obama or Mitt Romney, respectively, when they were told that the presidential election was likely to be competitive than when they thought the election was not close.

The final experiment tested the reasoning behind people's choice of extreme candidates in competitive elections.

"We found that when people believe that there is greater competition between their group and another group, they want to make clear what the differences are between the two groups. To make the distinction between the two groups clear, they choose leaders who are extreme in their views," Chang said.

These findings suggest that when the media focuses on the competition between two groups, such as political parties, this leads the members of both parties to lean away from the center in favor of more ideologically extreme representatives. Party nominees who hold more extreme views inevitably produce elected officials with more extreme views, which create wide ideological divisions in legislative bodies, such as Congress, and difficulties in facilitating the efficient operation of government.

"Ironically, it is the perception that elections are close that are creating such stark ideological divisions," Chang said.