The 2016 presidential election cycle has seen candidates from the ideological fringes of their parties command the attention of the media and the voting public, surprising and perplexing political observers.
While the political climate, voter attitudes and the strength of the competition all contribute to a candidate's success, a lengthy campaign season can breed more radical politicians, according to new research published in the American Economic Journal: Economics.
A product of the need for candidates to fund raise, build an organization, seek endorsements and more, the longer campaign season leads to media saturation, with the focus overwhelmingly on coverage of the horse race. The 24-hour news cycle, a constant stream of social media updates and dozens of debates can give voters a case of information overload.
History of the Socialist Movement in the U.S.: Photos
So how does the public make their minds up about who to support? Over the course of a drawn-out campaign, voters focus their attention away from policy positions and toward a candidate's character and style, the researchers find.
In other words, a political contender's tax policy is less likely to sway the electorate than his or her trustworthiness or speech delivery.
Past research has found that voters trust extreme positions more than they do moderate ones. Voters value commitment to principle particularly in times of uncertainty, found a study published in 2008 in The Economic Journal. Even when the electorate has ideological reservations about a candidate, a political contender offering "signature ideas" stands a better chance than one simply trying to tailor his or her policy platform to voter preferences.
Video: What Your Drink Says About Your Politics
This work challenges the median voter theory, which suggests voters are fully informed and cast their ballots for a candidate whose platform most closely mirrors their own beliefs.
The latest study finds that ideologically extreme candidates lose the incentive to moderate their policy platforms. While the focus of the extended campaign remains on character qualities, the link between a candidate's ideology and his or her electability weakens. Parties then are more likely to nominate outlier candidates.
The study's authors came to their conclusions using a mathematical model rooted in game theory, which allows them to examine strategic situations and understand incentives.
Strangest Presidential Candidates in History
"Our research shows real impact associated with longer, more informative campaigns, and perhaps a reason why we are seeing candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders doing so well within their parties this late in the game," said Raphael Boleslavsky of the University of Miami School of Business Administration.
Interestingly, if the goal is to nominate candidates with more moderate policy positions, the authors suggest a shorter, less informative campaign cycle. Less information overload, in other words, leads to a better-informed voter. A slimmed-down season would give voters the opportunity to balance a candidate's positions and character.