What if this time is different?

Posted from Culver City, California at 5:09 pm, February 26th, 2016

For at least the past forty years, while everyone else was fretting about Michelle Bachmann or Al Sharpton potentially becoming President, political science has calmly and rationally analyzed the electoral landscape and done an excellent job of predicting how the nomination contest would play out using a theory that is described as “the party decides”. This theory basically states that political parties guide voters to one of their preferred candidates through winnowing and signals from influential party actors. Thus, while a primary season might start out as a giant and chaotic clown show, candidates who lack support drop out after early contests, and the most influential elements within the party then unite behind one or two of the remaining candidates, showering them with media attention, money and endorsements. Voters, whose views are largely shaped by the media and the opinions of people/groups that they trust, end up backing the favored candidates. In the end, candidates who are unacceptable are dispatched, and the party always gets someone that its establishment supports.

This year on the Democratic side Hillary Clinton has the backing of the establishment, and while Bernie Sanders has passionate supporters and incredible homages from Larry David it doesn’t seem at all likely that he’ll be more than a speedbump in Clinton’s path to the nomination. The Republican side, however, is far more uncertain.

In my yearly predictions I said that Donald Trump wouldn’t win more than four primaries, and that Marco Rubio, who holds a huge lead in endorsements, would go on to win the party’s nomination. With Trump already boasting three wins, and the polls pointing towards a big day for him on Super Tuesday, it looks like my long tradition of incorrect predictions is likely to continue, and I (along with many political scientists) have gone from being absolutely certain that Trump would simply be a sideshow to wondering if he might in fact have a chance.

If Trump did actually win the nomination it would mark the first time in four decades that someone the party actively opposed was the nominee. While I would still bet on Marco Rubio based on past history and the likelihood that the party will do everything possible to get a candidate it wants, it’s interesting to assess what fundamental changes might have led to a possible failure in the “party decides” theory of the nomination process:

  • Skewed voter expectations: While there is a large faction in the Republican party that is very interested in passing laws and achieving results, there now exists a significant faction that seems focused on ideology over results. An effective lawmaker needs to be able to get people to work together to pass bills that can become law, but an ideological candidate needs only to promise to fight and never compromise. As an example of the latter, repeatedly voting to repeal Obamacare while the law’s namesake holds a veto pen is an act of protest, and not an act of governance. After seeing party leaders promoting candidates for office who lacked traditional qualifications (see: Palin, Sarah), it’s a confusing message to now try to convince the electorate that a candidate who is all sound and fury like Trump is unsuited for the job of President.
  • Lack of authenticity: In recent times the term “conservative” has become ever more rigidly defined, forcing candidates to disclaim positions they recently held. Thus Marco Rubio sponsors an immigration bill and four years later swears he didn’t actually want it to pass, and any candidate who might have ever suggested anything even resembling a limit on guns now airs commercials in which he fires assault weapons and suggests that even Jesus would push for more open carry laws. Despite the fact that these candidates are clearly full of crap everyone pretends that voters are convinced by the smoke and mirrors. After years of voters feeling like they’ve been played for fools by candidates who are just saying whatever they think the electorate wants to hear, Trump is espousing views so shocking, and so obviously different from anything any other politician would say, that voters believe he’s the only one not lying to them (note that the fact Trump professed very different views just a few years ago seems for some reason not to matter).
  • Truthiness: It’s a maxim to say that all politicians lie, but in the past politicians confronted with the truth have backtracked on their falsehoods. Today politicians confronted with the truth will simply double down on the lie, thus making it impossible to argue using facts. When you say that a climate scientist cannot be trusted on matters of climate change, or that economists who present analysis at odds with your preferred narrative are merely partisan shills, you create an electorate that won’t respect expert opinions. Clearly Mexico won’t pay for a border wall, it is impractical (not to mention inhumane) to simply round-up and deport eleven million people, and everyone isn’t going to get a free pony simply because a guy who built a few casinos sits in the White House, but after years of preaching that experts need not be trusted there is no easy way to plausibly discredit these claims.

While these same problems exist on the Democratic side – Hillary Clinton is shameless in her pandering to whatever audience she is addressing, and liberals will only believe scientists who remember not to point out that there is no evidence that GMOs are unsafe – political scientists seem to be in agreement that the problem is vastly more pronounced on the Republican side. Trump’s success serves as evidence of just how abnormal things have become, where a candidate who should have been dispatched easily by the Republican establishment is instead headed towards a delegate lead that might be hard for the party’s preferred candidate to overcome. Should he actually gain the nomination I feel certain that Trump would get absolutely shellacked in the general election, but I was equally certain that he wouldn’t come close to being nominated in the first place, so it’s a frightening possibility to wonder whether past history can still be considered a reliable guide in this election environment.

One Response to “What if this time is different?”

  1. ryan says:

    For anyone interested in this subject, here’s an alternate take on why Trump is successful: the “party decides” theory requires not only that the party supports some candidates, but also that it signals lack of support for other candidates. The alternate theory states that the Republican party actors believed the political scientists who said Trump had no chance, and thus they didn’t bother to fight him. As a result, a core part of the theory (that the party would signal to voters that a candidate wasn’t credible) failed to occur since the party actors didn’t realize it was a necessary action on their part:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/02/26/the-real-reason-donald-trump-is-winning-no-one-thought-it-was-possible/

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