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theory of spatial competition


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The division of social choice theory which attempts to predict how politicians seeking to be elected will interact with voters attempting to vote for their favourite set of policies. The idea derives from the work of economists who tried to explain why shops are located together in the middle of town rather than being spaced equidistantly. By analogy, Anthony Downs argued (in An Economic Theory of Democracy, 1957) that politicians seeking (re‐)election would position themselves on the set of policies favoured by the median voter (see also Black). Spatial theory assumes that voters can measure the distance between themselves and the candidates in multidimensional policy space, and vote either for the candidate nearest them or, tactically, for a more remote candidate with a higher chance of winning.

Like other subdivisions of social choice, spatial theory is usually set out in arcane mathematical language accessible only to other spatial theorists. Thus its strengths and weaknesses are opaque to everybody else. It is inappropriate for use either: 1 where voters do not regard issues as salient, so have no real perception of issue space nor of their position in it; or2 where issue space is so inherently multidimensional that majority rule is cyclical (see social choice) and there is no stable equilibrium point for politicians to seek.But it can be a powerful tool for analysing the manoeuvres of sophisticated voters in one‐dimensional arenas, such as Congressional committees. There, the basic insight that people who want to win elections will converge on the policy of the median voter remains robust. The sorry fate of those who conspicuously depart from the median (Barry Goldwater in 1964; George McGovern in 1972; Michael Foot in 1983; Margaret Thatcher in 1990) also suggests that the basic idea behind the theory of spatial competition is sound.

1 where voters do not regard issues as salient, so have no real perception of issue space nor of their position in it; or

2 where issue space is so inherently multidimensional that majority rule is cyclical (see social choice) and there is no stable equilibrium point for politicians to seek.

Subjects: Politics.


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