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Information and Extremism in Elections

We model an election in which parties nominate candidates with observable policy preferences prior to a campaign that produces information about candidate quality, a characteristic independent of policy. Informative campaigns lead to greater differentiation in expected candidate quality, which undermines policy competition. In equilibrium, as campaigns become more informative, candidates become more extreme. We identify conditions under which the costs associated with extremism dominate the benefits of campaign information. Informative political campaigns increase political extremism and can decrease voter welfare. Our results have implications for media coverage, the number of debates, and campaign finance reform.

Our research’s contribution centers around two main results. First, we show that as campaigns become more informative about candidate quality, parties nominate more extreme candidates. The additional information about candidate quality that arrives during a campaign weakens the link between a candidate’s ideology and his election chances, softening the incentive to moderate policy platforms. More informative campaigns lead to elected officials being both higher expected quality and more extreme. Second, we show that, from an ex ante perspective, the expected costs of campaign informativeness may dominate the benefits: although increasing informativeness supplies voters with better information about realized candidate quality, the increase in candidate extremism dominates this advantage. Consequently, if the distribution of voter preferences is sufficiently concentrated around the median voter, the ex ante welfare maximizing campaign signal is less than fully informative about quality. When the electorate is sufficiently extreme, fully informative campaigns are best. Completely uninformative campaigns are never optimal, despite the perfect moderation that arises. The results suggest that seemingly beneficial increases in the number of debates or expanded media coverage may have unintended welfare consequences.

Our results also offer a novel contribution to the debate regarding campaign finance reform. Political contribution limits and campaign spending caps are often viewed by supporters as a means of reducing politician reliance on private money for running campaigns, mitigating distortions in the political process. Opponents argue that these limits potentially reduce voter exposure to information, which—according to the conventional wisdom—hurts voter welfare. Our analysis suggests that exposure to less information may not be as detrimental to voters as intuition suggests. Although it leads to a less informed electorate, it also encourages policy moderation. The benefits of policy moderation may be dominant, leaving voters better off. Contribution limits and spending caps may benefit voters precisely because they reduce information. In our model, campaigns provide information about quality. If the campaigns alternatively produced information about candidate ideology, then additional information may lead to the equilibrium selection of less extreme candidates. More information leads to increased extremism only in as much as it reduces uncertainty about a candidate characteristic orthogonal to ideology.

Additionally, our analysis treats campaign informativeness as exogenous, and does not model the politics behind candidate nomination. One could imagine a model of endogenous campaign informativeness in which parties select campaign informativeness directly, or one in which campaign informativeness is determined by a strategic media, in response to party actions. We leave these interesting considerations to future research. Political polarization has risen substantially in America since the early 1970s (McCarty, Poole, and Rosenthal 2006). In a recent telephone poll conducted by USA Today and the Bipartisan Policy Center (February 2013), the majority of Americans agree that “American politics has become more divided in recent years” because “both parties have changed: Democrats [have become] more liberal and Republicans more conservative,” and that this “deeper division is a bad thing.”

Our analysis establishes a link between increases in voter information and increases in the extremism of political candidates and elected officials. We do not claim that change in voter information is the only relevant factor driving increased polarization. We do show, however, that changes in voter exposure to information (through changes in media coverage, the Internet, and debate formats) may have important implications for candidate extremism, which could contribute to political polarization more generally. A detailed empirical study may give better insight into the relative importance of this effect.

Boleslavsky, Raphael, and Christopher Cotton. “Information and Extremism in Elections.” American Economic Journal: Microeconomics 7.1 (2015): 165-207. Web.