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Politics & Government

CMU Research Says Competition Is At The Heart Of Extreme Politics

Why have Democrats and Republicans become so divided? And why can’t Congress seem to agree on anything?

These are the questions that American voters have been asking themselves for years, and new research might finally have an answer.

According to a report released by Carnegie Mellon University, these extreme political differences are the result of close and heated elections.

Researchers have found voters on opposite ends of the political gamut tend to favor more polarizing candidates when an election is thought to be close.

“It activates this desire to want to make sure that their group is really distinct from the other group, meaning that the group boundaries are very, very clear and one way to do that is to choose leaders who you think are going to make those boundaries very clear,” Rosalind Chow, associate professor of organizational behavior and theory, said.

The report, “A Desire for Deviance,” is comprised of three studies. The first asked voters to participate in a hypothetical U.S. primary election to see if they favored certain candidates based on how “hotly contested” the race was. Results show that Democrats and Republicans were more likely to choose an extreme candidate in a close race as opposed to when a district was labeled “safe.”

Chow said these results hold true when it comes to the real thing. She said party approval is often gained through extreme politics.

“In the primary elections, you do see candidates needing to go to the more ideological extremes in order to get the support of their party before they go into the general election,” Chow said.

The second experiment, conducted before the 2012 Presidential election, found Democrats and Republicans to favor a more extreme Barack Obama or Mitt Romney depending on how competitive they believed the race would be. The third study analyzed the reasoning behind voters’ choice of extreme candidates over moderates.

So, how did all of this happen?

According to Chow, the media is partly to blame.

“The more that the media plays up these differences between the two parties, the more it might feed into this dynamic,” she said. “So one option is, perhaps the media might not want to make such a big deal out of the divisions between the two groups.”

Chow also said extremism in politics has a limit, and at some point, it could begin to backfire.

“As parties seem to move more and more to their ideological extremes,” she said, “you might actually see voters saying, ‘Actually, I want more moderate candidates, and therefore, neither candidate does a good job of representing me.’”