The best way to win an election might still be in the middle
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() — Politicians often face a dilemma: They can run toward the base of their party to motivate higher turnout among hardcore followers, or position themselves toward the middle to avoid alienating swing voters.

Michael Bailey, a political scientist at Georgetown University, studied this dynamic and looked at the websites and tweets of congressional candidates who competed in the 2020 election.

He built a model that uses online communication to classify candidates’ ideologies. For instance, the term “cannabis” was associated with liberalism; words like “pro-life” are associated with conservatism.

This led him to compare how candidates of different ideologies performed in the 2020 election.

“Historically, political scientists have argued that being extreme is bad, electorally,” Bailey said.

But, particularly in the era of the internet, where politicians can easily fundraise among a national audience — many candidates find themselves tailoring their platform and rhetoric to the wings of their party in an attempt to raise money and build enthusiasm.

“It could just be now that there’s just Republicans and Democrats and voters don’t really care how extreme you are, they just vote for the Republican or Democrat and if voters literally only care about your party, then why not get really extreme … or lean into whatever party you are?” Bailey said.

But his study found that conventional wisdom still holds.

The model showed that in competitive races — where it was a realistic possibility that a candidate from either party could win — a Democrat moving from the liberal end to the more conservative side was associated with an increase in vote share of more than 4 percentage points. Republicans, too, benefitted from being positioned more toward the middle.

“A Democrat moving to the right gives the Democrat more votes, a Republican moving to the right also gives the Democrats more votes, right? But the Democrat moving to the right is moderating and the Republican moving to the right is becoming extreme,” Bailey said.

The study also looked at the kind of terms that more moderate politicians use.

“The moderate words for Democrats are ‘bipartisan solutions,’ ‘working families,’ ‘Navy veterans,’ ‘seniors,’ you know, all the kind of stuff you associate with that kind of politician,” Bailey said, noting that the terms for moderate Republicans were similar.

While Bailey’s study suggests that more moderate ideological positioning is most electorally beneficial, he did note that the short-term benefits of taking more extreme positions often entice politicians.

“There are strong results that you do better in elections if you are more moderate. At the same time … you get more attention, meaning more followers, and you get more small money donations, small money contributions, if you’re more extreme,” he said.

Bailey said that he is currently studying the 2022 congressional elections with the same methods and hopes to publish those results in the future.

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