The role of political extremists in electoral campaigns

This is a working paper, please do not cite without author’s permission.

Do politicians set the agenda during campaigns? Do politicians make voters extremists, or do extreme voters make politicians extreme? Current theories of opinion formation suggest that voters blindly follow the views of their preferred politician. However, these theoretical suggestions fail to recognize the ideological complexity of the electorate and how different groups occupy different roles in the opinion-formation process. In this study, I formulate the \textit{Downstream extremism} theory, a novel explanation to understand the opinion formation process during electoral campaigns. I argue that extremist voters give cues to political elites, who in turn influence the mass public. Electoral campaigns are the mechanism by which politicians receive feedback from extremists. I present empirical evidence of one step of my proposed theory in which extremists express their views at higher levels than moderates. I leverage the randomness of the content of the 2020 US Presidential debate to estimate its effect on the expressed sentiment of Twitter users. My findings confirm my expectation that extremists respond to campaigns at higher levels compared to moderates. My theory presents crucial implications for how we understand the origin of political opinions. To understand why the electorate thinks the way it does, political scientists and practitioners alike ought to pay more attention to extreme voters.

Bijean Ghafouri
Bijean Ghafouri
Doctoral Student

USC