Why Do Politicians All Sound the Same?

Release Date
May 24, 2013


Democracy and Voting

Have you ever wondered why politicians seem to all say the same thing, especially during presidential elections? According to Professor Diana Thomas, this is due to the median voter theorem. To guarantee victory, a candidate has to earn just over 50 percent of the vote. Even if a candidate starts out on an extreme end of the political spectrum, he ultimately will aim for the middle to convince the “median voter” to vote for him.
For example, a Democrat running for office may start out expressing ideas that fit well on the far Left side of the political spectrum. To earn the votes of more mainstream Democrats, he will then begin to stand for more mainstream policies. To then earn the votes of the most conservative Democrats or Independents, he will move his platform even more toward the center, in an attempt to win over just more than 50 percent of voters. A Republican candidate goes through the same process in reverse, until both have essentially met in the middle.
In a two-party, majority rule system, moving toward the center is not likely to alienate the voters on the ends because they feel there is not another viable candidate to vote for instead.  This means, there really isn’t any penalty for a candidate chooses to move toward the middle. And it explains why all politicians end up sounding the same.

“Public Choice”[encyclopedia entry]: The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics entry on public choice theory, the school of thought to which the median voter theorem belongs
Why Politics Is Stuck in the Middle [article]: Economist Tyler Cowen  uses the median voter theorem to explain policy choices, President Obama’s legacy, and campaign finance
The Limited Explanatory Power of the Median Voter Theorem [article]: Economist Matthew Iglesias directly responds to Tyler Cowen’s article in this Think Progress blog post
Why All Politicians Sounds the Same [article]: Business Insider takes a game theoretical approach to the median voter theorem
Simmons, Randy T. (2011). Beyond Politics. Oakland: Independent Institute.

Why Do Politicians All Sound the Same?

Have you ever wondered why politicians from different parties, especially during presidential campaigns, end up saying exactly the same stuff? It actually makes sense that they do. I can tell you why by explaining something called the median voter theorem.
Let’s assume you’re a Democratic politician running for election. In a two-party majority rule system you’re going to need at least one vote more than 50 percent to guarantee victory. Let’s say you start out holding a position on the extreme Left. Will you win the race? Well, that obviously depends on how voter preferences are distributed along the Left–Right continuum.
Most of the time there will be voters all along the spectrum from Left to Right. So looking at the spectrum of voter preferences, who can you convince to vote for you? Democrats on the far Left have opinions a lot like yours. So their vote should be easy to get. Then as you move slightly to the Right, you get to the mainstream Democrats. You can probably count on a lot of their votes, too, even if you’re more radical than they are on some issues.
But what happens when you start moving into the more conservative Democrats and Independents near the middle of the spectrum? Most of the time you will need their votes in order to get over 50 percent, but their preferences are so different from yours, they might refuse to vote for you. They might even be tempted to vote for a Republican instead.
So the only way you can help to get the votes of the voters in the middle is by moving your own position toward theirs. In fact, if you want to win, you will have to aim for the position of the median voter—the guy right in the middle of the spectrum—because he’s the last voter you have to convince to get the majority you need.
Now this will take you pretty far from your original position. Will the voters further to the Left still vote for you? In a two-party system they probably will. You’re still closer to their position than the Republican candidate, and, as we all know. there usually aren’t any other viable candidates out there.
And your Republican opponent will be going through the exact same process. If he wants to convince more than a small group of hardcore Republicans to vote for him, he also needs to appeal to the people further to the Left and ultimately, to the median voter. So that’s why all politicians end up saying exactly the same stuff. In a two-party system with majority rule, the median voter is the prize they’re all fighting for.