The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Does the Median Voter Matter?

Wed, March 24, 2010

As articulated by Anthony Downs in 1957, the classic model of spatial voting predicts that in a system with two political parties, candidates’ policy positions will converge toward the preferences of the median voter. However, it has long been clear that major party candidates often articulate divergent policy preferences, empirically falsifying the Downs prediction. While further verification that candidates do not necessarily converge toward the middle may not be especially revealing, new research by Stephen Jessee about how far candidates move in the opposite direction is.

Published in the March issue of American Politics Research, “Voter Ideology and Candidate Positioning in the 2008 Presidential Elections” shows, with novel specificity, that Barack Obama and John McCain both took policy positions far from the ideological center of the nation’s voters. The estimated policy preferences of more than two-thirds of respondents to Jesse’s survey fell to the right of Obama and the left of McCain. Moreover, both candidates may well have been even more extreme than their own partisans and party primary constituencies.

Jessee is assistant professor of government.

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