Democratic candidates with conservative leanings are going to have a tough time gaining liberal votes in future US elections. At least - that is what a new brain study from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln suggests.
The team of researchers conducted the study for an important reason. They wanted to find out what voters really thought about political candidates who cross party lines on specific policy issues. For instance, what would a voter think about a conservative candidate who supports abortion, or a liberal candidate who opposes gun control?
The team decided to examine the brain activity of liberals and conservatives to find out.
The findings reveal that self-identified liberals are more likely to notice when a candidate deviates from their party's policies. And, in the majority of instances, liberal voters evaluate those inconsistent positions as "bad."
"We found that liberal and conservative participants processed the information differently and that liberals were more likely to penalize candidates who expressed incongruent positions," said lead researcher Ingrid Haas, a political psychologist at Nebraska.
Using a powerful functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging machine, the team conducted brain scans of 58 adults while they reviewed the policy positions of four made-up political candidates - two Democrats and two Republicans.
While in the scanner, participants were presented with photos of the fictional candidates and asked to respond to a number of their hypothetical policy positions. Based on their policies, the participants had to decide within milliseconds whether the candidate was "good" or "bad."
While the study is still small, it could have wider implications for the 2018 election. The overall suggestion is that Democratic candidates with conservative leanings are less appealing to voters than Republican candidates with a liberal bent.
For many, these results come as a surprise. Among liberals, conservatives have a reputation for being intolerant of progressive policy. Yet, the findings suggest it is liberals, and not conservatives, that are more unflinching in their political resolve.
"If less scrutiny is applied to Republicans for policy deviations, it may indicate that specific liberal causes and policies have some electoral viability among Republican candidates," Haas and co-authors wrote in the study.
But there is another explanation. The authors theorize that conservative voters are less aware of policy deviations because the GOP has become so fractured on policy issues, like health care and social issues. In other words, conservative voters are not always able to recognize when a Republican candidate has crossed the party line. Whereas, it is much easier for liberals to identify and criticize conservative policy.
The findings of the study also highlight the causes of political gridlock.
The study suggests it is not just elite politicians that refuse to compromise on certain policy issues, alienating their constituents and dividing them along party lines. Voters also hold a certain amount of responsibility for the divided nature of government in the US.
"These findings may be concerning to those who see political polarization as a problem as well as to those who desire meaningful social change," the authors concluded. According to the authors, the findings demonstrate a psychological process that hinders the "likelihood of political compromise" among voters.
And - as we all know - political compromise is one of the only ways that important public policy gets implemented.
The study was published in Social Justice Research.