Donald Trump

How Political Extremism Sways Presidential Elections and Public Policy

Models of American electoral behavior suggest that Clinton should lose, but worries about extremism may Trump


Chine Nouvelle/SIPA/Newscom

"Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," Barry Goldwater famously declared as he accepted the Republican presidential nomination in 1964. I have never really understood why some people thought those words were beyond the pale. Yet some more anxious and thoughtful souls worry that such "extremism" might possibly provoke people to engage in murderous mayhem.

So how does political extremism play out in American politics? One new study shows that extremist arguments can be effective in shifting public policy debates. Another reports that voters do not penalize more ideologically extreme presidential candidates.

"Exposing people to extreme conservative policies makes them more likely to prefer moderate conservative policies relative to liberal ones, and vice versa," reports the New York University political scientist Gary Simonovits. Simonovits' study, which was published in the journal Political Behavior, is basically an empirical confirmation of how the "Overton Window of Political Possibilities" works.

As Simonovits explains, Joseph Overton was a libertarian policy analyst at the Mackinac Center who "argued that the range of policies or opinions deemed acceptable by the public is in a constant flux and can be shifted by introducing and defending ideas not yet 'on the table.'" Or as Daily Kos blogger David Atkins once summarized it: "You win policy debates by crafting arguments for extreme positions—and then shifting the entire window of debate."

Simonovits tested this claim by deploying surveys that make statements about various policy proposals along the standard left-right political spectrum. Some were designed to be more centrist and others are more extreme. (He defines extreme positions as "those far from the policies that mainstream political actors stand for in a given time and place.") The goal was to see how exposure to the extreme policy proposals affects the participants' views.

In one survey, participants read centrist liberal and conservative policy statements saying it should be made somewhat easier or harder to immigrate. Extreme liberal and conservative versions stated that immigration should not be limited at all or should be banned, respectively. In another survey, the centrist policy statements proposed slight increases or decreases in welfare; the extreme ones said welfare should be radically increased or entirely abolished. In another, the centrist statements argued that abortion should be legal in most cases or illegal in most cases; the extreme positions held that it should be either always legal or entirely banned. In the last one, the centrist arguments held that the federal minimum wage should be increased to $10.10 or kept at $7.25; the policy extremes involved increasing it to $15.10 or reducing it to $5.10.

After running these surveys on about 4,000 participants, Simonovits reports, "Moderate conservative polices were perceived as more centrist when an extremely conservative alternative was introduced; likewise, respondents rated moderate liberal alternatives as significantly more centrist when an extremely liberal policy was added to the choice set." For example, respondents exposed to the proposal that welfare be abolished were more likely to see the idea of somewhat reducing welfare spending as more centrist than the idea that it should be increased somewhat. Simonovits found the same effect for each of the policy statements he surveyed. The relatively small effects in these one-off surveys suggest that political entrepreneurs do have a real hope that by continuously hammering their issues they can eventually get them "on the table" of mainstream policy discourse.

Received wisdom of the pundit class is that American presidential candidates must run to the center in order to win, because wary voters punish candidates who are perceived as extremists. The landslide losses of Goldwater and Democrat George McGovern are supposed to be the prime examples of this phenomenon. The Holy Cross College political scientist Donald Brand expressed this conventional view when he wrote in July that Clinton "has run to the left in the primaries to counter the challenge posed by Bernie Sanders, but she will almost certainly moderate and run to the center in the general election."

A new study by James Madison University political scientist Marty Cohen and his colleagues call this conclusion into question by looking America's presidential elections from 1948 to 2012. The researchers devised a measure of ideological extremism for each of the major-party presidential candidates, and then tried to determine whether ideology helps to predict electoral outcomes.

Cohen and company tested their ideology measures using two well-known models for predicting presidential vote outcomes: "musical chairs" and "bread and peace." In the musical chairs model, voters focus on whether economic growth is robust leading up to the election—and they tend to tire of an incumbent party over time. Bread and peace includes a penalty for going to war unprovoked.

Without going into great detail, Cohen and his colleagues created an ideology scale for every major-party candidate from 1948 to 2012 relying chiefly on survey data from the American National Election Studies and the Rosenstone political location scale.

Cohen et al.

Running the perceived relative extremism of the candidates through both predictive models the researchers find a very modest contribution of ideology to the outcomes of presidential elections since 1948. The biggest effect they find is that concern over Reagan's conservative ideology might have delivered an extra 1.3 percent of the votes to Carter in the 1980 election. Nevertheless, Reagan won 51 percent of the popular vote and 90 percent of the Electoral College.

So what about the conventional wisdom that ideology caused the landslide defeats of extremists Goldwater and McGovern? The researchers point out that both "faced a double whammy." Both the musical chairs and bread and peace models predict that one-term incumbents overseeing a rising economy will win. So Johnson and Nixon did in 1964 and 1972, respectively. They further note that perceived ideological extremists Reagan (1980) and Obama (2008) won handily when challenging incumbent party candidates with poor economic records. The upshot is that Americans care most about economics and war when they the cast their ballots.

So what do these studies suggest about the outcome of the presidential election on November 8? If the predictive models are working, then Hillary Clinton should be losing due to weariness with the incumbent party and a relatively lousy economy. On the other hand, Donald Trump's extremist ideology—if you can call the mish-mash of his often contradictory diatribes an ideology—may undermine the claim that ideology plays essentially no role in determining the winners of American presidential elections.

On the more worrying other hand, Simonovits' research suggests that Trump's extreme anti-immigrant, protectionist, anti–free speech, pro–surveillance state, and racially divisive tirades may have the effect of shifting the Overton Window toward mainstreaming radically anti-liberty politics.

NEXT: Democratic Lawmaker Calls for Boycott of Brewery for Supporting Trump

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  1. Yet some more anxious and thoughtful souls worry that such “extremism” might possibly provoke people to engage in murderous mayhem.

    If i were God-Emperor i would leave everybody alone SO HARD.

    1. *looks around for someone to murder*

      1. ace_m82, is that you?

    2. Trump’s extremism:

      Stop open borders. How very extreme! It’s not like every other country in the world – if they can – maintains the integrities of their borders.

      Call for cessation of bringing in “refugees” from an area where ISIS has openly stated they will infiltrate terrorists among the applicants and the administration has testified to congress that the “vetting” process is wholly inadequate.

      And then there’s anti-Islamism. The U.S. doesn’t discriminate, right? No. Christians and Yazidis are the oppressed minorities. We have always made humanitarian efforts to allow oppressed minorities in. Guess what? That discriminates against those doing the oppression. Allowing Jews into the country during WWII (which we should have done more of) discriminated against Nazi non-Jews.

      1. Another Kleptocracy infiltrator who has not read the LP platform.

  2. Hmmmmmm.

    Looks like the FBI is opening (or re-opening) another investigation into Hillary.

      1. Perhaps. Or maybe the straw that broke the electorate’s back.

        1. Does Trump have the cash for a last minute round of advertising?

    1. “I didn’t get paid enough for the amount of flak I caught over the first round” – Comey

  3. God Bless Wikileaks and save it from all harm.

    1. If only Wikileaks was contained on a laptop or two, the FBI could do its investigation and then destroy the laptops.

      1. No, they would destroy the laptop and then declare that there was nothing to investigate.

  4. Holy shit. I am stunned.

    I don’t know what to make of this. Who did this come from? An FBI that finally figured out they pissed away all of their credibility? More email that even Obama cant ignore? Lynch? Trump dug up something on Obama? Trump caved on some issue we aren’t aware of?

    I can only speculate that someone with a lot of pull suddenly decided Clinton in the white house wasn’t going to be as good as they initially thought.

    Hold on, let me go do a little dance.

    1. You danked into the Brooks.

    2. Theory I posted in the other thread: he’s shoring up credibility, ultimately won’t find anything new.

      1. yup, as I suspected, reasonable prosecutors still wouldn’t do anything with this….

      2. Furthermore, there are many allegations against Clinton, much better evidenced and much more damning than another go-around with the question of confidential items. By singling out this one he’s essentially denying credibility to the rest.

        1. Having this in the news a week plus before the election cannot be good for her.

          1. If I’m right, Comey is gambling salvaging his reputation vs. Hillary winning by eight points rather than twelve.

    3. Or maybe the answer is more simple… her corruption is so expansive, that there are elements of this case that simply can’t continue to be ignored.

      1. Could polls have been dead wrong, like Brexit, that the FBI and media are now covering their asses?

    4. Timing of this is very interesting.

  5. Too bad Hitler killed himself. If he was still alive, he could run against Trump and seem like a moderate. “Oh well he just wants to kill Jews, not illegals, muslims, blacks and random people walking down Fifth Avenue. And Eric was just kidding about the ovens, silly!”

    1. What a silly bitch you are.

      1. Ah, a civil, on-topic and to-the point display of mystical cogency. Class, take note!

  6. Well sonofabitch… breaking.

    Hillary Clinton’s private email server under investigation by FBI again

    “In connection with an unrelated case, the FBI has learned of the existence of emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation,” Comey wrote. “I am writing to inform you that the investigative team briefed me on this yesterday, and I agreed that the FBI should take appropriate investigative steps designed to allow investigators to review these emails to determine whether they contain classified information as well as to assess their importance to our investigation.”

    Comey added: “Although the FBI cannot yet assess whether or not this material may be significant and I cannot predict how long it will take to complete this additional work, I believe it is important to update your Committees about our efforts in light of my previous testimony.”

      1. Sorry, I barely read the articles, you think I read the comments too?

        Thanks for posting though.

        1. If you don’t read either the articles or the comments, why load the page at all?

          1. … you’re here for the Ads!

            1. +18 celebrities you wouldn’t believe are actually aliens

              1. I have known for years about the Canadian infiltration of the entertainment industry.

              1. Just as long as you’re not AC, because then not only would the void scream back, you’d try to transcribe its remarks.

  7. When both major-party candidates are running on platforms of perpetual debt, perpetual war, and screwing the Constitution, I would say that extremism is a very effective vote getter.

  8. The researchers point out that both “faced a double whammy.”

    Political science is so technical.

  9. Regarding extremism, Hillary’s proposed policies are way more extreme — on the usual liberal/conservative scale — while Trump is just a tinhorn populist.

  10. Maybe there were a number of disgruntled agents who were going to go (more) public on it, and Comey decided to head them off, at least until after the election.

  11. Ha, ha ha! This is awesome. I’m working right now at a PR reps house that works for the Dems. She is going absolutely ape shit over the latest news.

  12. The DNC jockeyed their pied piper candidate into position quite skillfully. He’s just about the only person in the country who could lose to Clinton.

  13. More speculation. Maybe Comey is hedging his bets? If they don’t give any findings until after the election a Clinton win means they didn’t find anything and they vindicate her – if Trump wins they throw her to the dogs in an attempt to keep Trump from cleaning out the FBI offices.

    Still, by opening an investigation into a candidate ten days before an election they cant think they aren’t throwing that candidates chances in the shitter. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when Obumbles was given the news.

    1. I think that’s likely. Comey’s one of many turds floating in the bowl and Trump might get to hold the handle. Trump’s got an ego so grand that he might easily be swayed into turning his eye to pushing other handles instead. “Look, don’t you see that when more evidence came to light I tried to do the right thing and end Clinton’s run, but they just wouldn’t let me? I’m on your side, President Trump.”

      If Clinton gets the nod, this all goes away just like the first time. Clinton might just flush him out of spite, but I don’t doubt that he’s got something in reserve that he can sell her for the right price in exchange for that career-ending move.

    2. Another investigation where there’s no grand jury, no subpoenas and no one testifying under oath will not yield anything. They’ve already given immunity to everyone who isn’t one of Hillary’s “lawyers”.

      Nothing will happen because Comey knows that Hillary is a shoo-in and will crush him like a bug if he dares do anything to hurt her.

      1. The Antichoice, on the other hand, stands poised to crush US like so many bugs if it can muster the power to strip us of Second Amendment rights one-at-a-time. That’s the way the Thought Police operate, pitting irresistible SWAT teams against lone individuals, their children and pets in no-knock raids. To the Antichoice, SWAT = Strengths, Weaknesses, Asset-forfeiture and Threats to intimidate submission. Once the last citizen has been branded a felon for a seed or for eating sauerkraut (1% alcohol) before operating a motorbike, the Kristallnacht laws will have been imported with the rest of Christian National Socialism through the good offices of the faith-based GO and Pee.

  14. I was watching a documentary (“16 contenders” or something) that reviewed Goldwater positions in 1964. Except for foreign policy, it seemed Johnson was running to the left of Goldwater (not to mention how far away the Trump and Clintons are). Goldwater got 27 million votes. Those folks can’t all be dead, so why isn’t Johnson getting at least, say, 15 million votes?

    1. Well, goldwater is far before my time, but the recent Weld thing as currently thrown me off the Johnson Vote. It just, infuriated me. Probably beyond reason. I just, I don’t feel like voting for someone who doesn’t seem to actually want to win or believe himself to be better than the other candidates.

      I might come back to the pasture on election day though, especially if the Weld thing can be put in perspective.

      As to those back in the day, didn’t Clinton use to be a Goldwater girl or something? Maybe they all became hypocritical thieving liberals.

      1. Johnson wanted to run on the “We’re sane and have good records as governors” ticket. No one wanted that. The libertarians wanted a firebrand to inspire people to actually cut government and the authoritarians wanted a “strong leader”. Americans are convinced that the US is going to hell on a roller coaster and that things have never been worse. “Save me, oh Great and Powerful One!” became the cry. Game, set and match to the fascists.

      2. As Hillary Clinton is a clinical psychopath, she has no actual ideals or convictions. Hence her constant shift of position on nearly every issue over time. I’ve said this before and I will say it again now. If Hillary thought she could lock down the presidency by advocatimgthe re-enslavement of blacks, she would do it without a moment of hesitation. The drones in her base would rapidly dpfall into line like they always do.

      3. Liberal means one thing in Mein Kampf and the God’s Own Prohibitionist platform. In the real world (including Canada, Australia, the UK, France, South America…) it means pro-choice freetrader for individual rights, and has for some two centuries. YES Hillary Clinton was a Goldwater Republican according to Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard, authors of “Killing Reagan.” I admit it is hard to come up with an epithet for the secular looters that does not apply to the mystical looters, but I’m not going to make that my problem. I vote for the Libertarian platform, and my spoiler votes and donations have 6 to 36 times the law-changing power of effort and treasure squandered on the Kleptocracy.

    2. The voting age in 1964 was 21. That means that only people born before 1943 could vote for him. If the average age of a voter in 1964 was 35 then their average age today is 87 meaning that the overwhelming majority of them are dead.

      Besides, if someone ran today wanting to privatize social security, repeal the public accommodations section of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and deregulate banking and the medical industry he would be drawn and quartered by his own party before he ever got in front of an audience.

    3. Oh, you mean Gary. C’m’on, it’s hard to read that & not think Lyndon, & then huh? Can I nominate for confusingest comment of the week?

      1. Look, the antichoice looters are desperate. This is the equivalent of the third-term election of FDR when folks still remembered prohibition agents shooting their husbands and sons, while identical Christian National Socialists were busily shooting their husbands and sons over in Europe. Nobody is going to elect another Republican so soon after the asset-forfeiture crash and depression–not according to bookies. But Bobby M prolly needs a political job, or wants the government to force his girlfriend to bear his issue. The coercive wretches are getting what they deserve, and that includes no pity from me.

  15. RE: How Political Extremism Sways Presidential Elections and Public Policy
    Models of American electoral behavior suggest that Clinton should lose, but worries about extremism may Trump

    Both candidates believe extremism in the defense of stupidity is no vice.
    It just goes to show you what an Ivy League education can do.

    1. Help you become connected? That’s pretty much what it’s for.

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  18. This looks a lot like the phony scale the looters trotted out in 1989 to dismiss the Nolan Chart for having “too many” (as in two) axis variables. With odds most even at half the suckers voting, the Dems are favored at 3 to 1 odds and the GO-Pee prohibitionists with the dry Herbert Hoover ku-kluxer bet to lose at 2.5 to 1 odds. Bookies are clearly not impressed by the Rapture Revelations of Creation Science phrenological prediction of a win for the tee-totalitarian Antichoice. Surely America got enough of that in 1928.

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