Public Choice

, Volume 145, Issue 3, pp 417-433

First online:

Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Why candidate divergence should be expected to be just as great (or even greater) in competitive seats as in non-competitive ones

  • James AdamsAffiliated withDepartment of Political Science, University of California at Davis Email author 
  • , Thomas L. BrunellAffiliated withThe School of Policy Science, University of Texas at Dallas
  • , Bernard GrofmanAffiliated withDepartment of Political Science, University of California at Irvine
  • , Samuel MerrillIIIAffiliated withDepartment of Mathematics and Computer Science, Wilkes University


Basic Downsian theory predicts candidate convergence toward the views of the median voter in two-candidate elections. Common journalistic wisdom, moreover, leads us to expect these centripetal pressures to be strongest when elections are expected to be close. Yet, the available evidence from the US Congress disconfirms this prediction. To explain this counterintuitive result, we develop a spatial model that allows us to understand the complex interactions of political competition, partisan loyalties, and incentives for voter turnout that can lead office-seeking candidates, especially candidates in close elections, to emphasize policy appeals to their voter base rather than courting the median voter.

Spatial models Candidate polarization US politics