Media Briefings

Voters Trust Conviction Politicians To Develop ‘Good’ Policies

  • Published Date: July 2008

Margaret Thatcher spearheaded a right-wing programme of reform in Britain throughout the 1980s – but in two out of the three elections she won (in 1979 and 1987), her Conservative Party was not the centrist party. Similarly, Clement Attlee’s 1945 landslide was not fought from the centre, but rather on a radical platform of nationalisation and setting up the National Health Service.
In research published in the July 2008 issue of the Economic Journal, Professor Juan Carrillo and Dr Micael Castanheira argue that voters may be better off choosing politicians (like Thatcher and Attlee) who are clearly right- or left-wing than ‘centrist’ politicians who follow the will of the people.
Dr Castanheira comments:
‘Politicians with a centrist position should have a competitive edge. But the flipside is: extreme politicians must therefore develop a better platform of policies to beat their opponent.’
The researchers’ argument builds on the fact that voters cannot always know how well thought through the policies of each politician are. And as voters are (on average) centrist, politicians who choose either a left or a right stance have to work harder than centrist politicians on their policies to stand a chance at the ballot box. Knowing this, voters may prefer ‘extremist’ politicians, when they assume they have good policies.
During campaigns, politicians get frantic. They are on the run, trying to find the idea that will make good headlines. Less visibly, their party and associated thinktanks spend years trying to develop new policies, which candidates then seek to transform into an appealing political programme.
Professor Carrillo and Dr Castanheira analyse a situation in which politicians choose an ideological position – left, centre or right – and then decide which policies to put in their manifestos. The ideology of politicians is obvious to voters, but voters are less able to tell if their policies are well thought through or not.
The authors show that if a centrist and either a left- or right-wing politician are competing, then the left/right-wing politician indeed works harder developing good policies. So a left- or right-wing politician should be preferred by centrist voters, even though the voters have more in common with the centrist politician ideologically.
When there is a fully free and active media, which can evaluate policies on the behalf of voters, voters may become better informed. If they get very well informed, politicians no longer have to adopt a left- or right-wing position to show voters that they have thought through their policies. This means that voters get well thought through policies from centrist politicians – their ideal scenario.
Dr Castanheira concludes:
‘Even the best ideas may end up unnoticed or misunderstood by the electorate. Conversely, even a dumb policy can end up in political success if voters remain unable to detect the intellectual fraud.’
‘Our results show why the press is such an important power in a democracy. Its independence must be warranted to ensure that information reaches voters, and force politicians to work harder.’
‘But the press may also need to be significantly subsidised to improve the political process’.
Notes for editors: ‘Information and Strategic Political Polarisation’ by Juan Carrillo and Micael Castanheira is published in the July 2008 issue of the Economic Journal.
Juan Carrillo is at the University of Southern California. Micael Castanheira is at the Université Libre de Bruxelles.
For further information: contact Juan Micael Castanheira on +32 2650 4467 (email:; Juan Carrillo on +1 213 740 3526 (email:; or Romesh Vaitilingam on 07768 661095 (email: