As we await the outcome of the first-in-the-nation New Hampshire primary, it turns out that the TV audience who will be tuning in for that tense, drip-drip of results displays the same mindset as the football fans who intently watched Sunday’s Super Bowl.

The idea that politics has become sport for voters with partisan loyalties has never proven truer than in the 2016 presidential race. Whether it’s Donald Trump’s trash talking, Bernie Sanders sandbagging Hillary Clinton with the help of the obnoxious Bernie Bros. hit squad, or Ted Cruz engaging in some truly juvenile, win-at-all-cost behavior, many voters blindly cheer for their undisputed favorite—a party or a candidate.

Analysts who have studied this “politics as sport” phenomenon conclude that candidates behaving badly is a product of voters, a large slice of the electorate, more interested in winning elections than in the policies that might be put in place by the winners.

“If our politicians are polarized and uncivil,” one researcher explained, “maybe it’s because many voters are polarized and uncivil.”

It turns out that those on the political fringe – the haters and trolls on social media — are not far from the attitudes of hardcore partisans who dominate the presidential primaries in both political parties.

Trump fan

Worse yet, a recent study found that acceptable tactics among these hardcore partisans included “voter suppression, stealing or cheating in elections, physical violence and threats against the other party, lying, personal attacks on opponents, not allowing the other party to speak, and using the filibuster to gridlock Congress.”

What we have is a dog-eat-dog popularity contest.

Both sides embrace this Lombardi-like mentality. But it has to be pointed out that Sen. Cruz has emerged in recent days as a prime example of over-the-top politicking. First, the Texas Republican’s team latched onto a fairly innocuous CNN report – indicating that GOP rival Ben Carson would be taking a day or two away from the campaign trail – to send out phony bulletins during the Iowa caucuses claiming that Carson was dropping out.

Tactics of any kind embraced

Cruz faced furious criticism for that move, but it doesn’t seem to have fazed his campaign. In recent days, Cruz has sent mailers to Republicans in various states with a message on the envelope: “Check enclosed.”

But what was contained inside was a mock-up of an actual check accompanied by an aggressive sales pitch for recipients to donate to the Cruz campaign.

Frankly, these are the types of sleazy tactics normally relegated to bare-knuckled fights for a city council or county commissioner seat, not the highest office in the land.

But, make no mistake, many of the ardent Cruz supporters passionately defend these strategies.

The study that first revealed the extent of voters’ hostility toward the partisan enemy was titled, “Red and Blue States of Mind: Partisan Hostility and Voting in the United States.” A research paper produced by the University of Kansas, it received a brief burst of media attention when it was released last spring.

But its message, that in the current polarized political climate, fiercely partisan voters behave more like obsessed sports fans than informed citizens, has played out in its most egregious form yet in the ongoing race for the White House.

‘I hate the other party’

“For too many (voters) it’s not high-minded, good-government, issue-based goals. It’s, ‘I hate the other party. I’m going to go out, and we’re going to beat them.’ That’s troubling,” said Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political science professor who co-wrote the report.

The study broke ground by uncovering evidence that hate for the other side of the political aisle often isn’t based on opposing values and political positions, but on loyalty to the party itself.

Michigan fan dejected

In essence, this is the equivalent of the most intense rivalries in college sports: North Carolina vs. Duke, Alabama vs. Auburn, Michigan vs. Michigan State.

Analyzing data from the 2010 congressional elections, Miller and professor Pamela Johnston Conover of the University of North Carolina discovered that, contrary to earlier research, party loyalty was the driving factor in many voters’ behavior — much more so than fundamental disagreements over issues.

And the highly partisan voters were not shy about their intolerant views.

Some 41 percent of voters who identified with either the Democratic or Republican party said they were more heavily invested in winning elections than achieving policy goals. In addition, 38 percent of self-described Democrats and Republicans believed that politics is a zero-sum game in which electoral victory must be achieved at all cost, using any tactic necessary.

This nastiness also prevails during off years, when Congress is in session and the next election is off in the distance. The two sides that divide the electorate refuse to engage in communication. And compromise is a dirty word.

All I care about is my side winning

“If all I care about is the game and my side winning, then what happens between the games?” Miller asked. Ideally, politicians could attempt to convince the strongest partisans in their base that disagreeing with a member of the other “team” shouldn’t resort to labeling them as evil.

“Too many partisans are saying, ‘My side is good; the other side is evil. We have to go beat them,'” Miller said. “…That sense of animosity and demonization is really motivating average partisans to participate in politics, much more so than issues or ideology.

“Competitive elections are making you hate the other party more. They’re having a 180-degree opposite effect from what we think they should. Instead of bringing us together to talk and deliberate, they’re making us hateful people who are disengaged from our fellow citizens.”

Other research has shown that high intensity voters insulate themselves within own party and like-minded commentary. Hyper-partisans increasingly consume only media content that reinforces either conservative or liberal ideas. It’s Fox News vs. MSNBC.

“We’re not thinking about politics in the way that most (of the Founding Fathers) wanted,” Miller concluded, “which is to think about issues, be open to compromise and not be attached to parties. We’re looking at politics through a simplistic partisan view in which we think our side is good and their side is bad.”