The Median Voter is the power behind the throne
If you’ve ever taken a political science class, you’ve probably seen the graph on the right. It’s a linear political spectrum, with the left shaded in all it’s pinko commie glory. The Median Voter theory suggests the optimal solution for a candidate is to move towards the center, i.e. closest to the median voter.
When Democratic candidates follow this strategy, they stake out a position slightly to their left during the primary, and then pivot to the right when the electorate broadens in the general. They’re trying to get as close to the median voter in each contest.
This is conventional wisdom and has been understood for decades. It is very likely the wrong kind of analysis to apply to this election cycle. It’s not that the theory is wrong, but rather that the cycle is unlikely to play out along the linear political spectrum. If my guess is correct, candidates who play the median voter game will falter, because the game itself has changed.
Voters understand the game
The first change is that voters are aware of this strategy, and it becomes less optimal as voters become more aware of the game (after repeated plays). Thanks to cable news and better reporting on primary nomination contests, voters now expect candidates to tack to the center. Some have resigned themselves to this because they assume all politicians are “non-authentic” in this way. Others rationalize it as a tactic required to be effective in a game where jockeying for position is part of the race.
There’s a wildcard in this cycle, a candidate who effectively says he won’t play the pivot game or run negative ads. And thanks to his long service, it is clear he hasn’t changed his positions over the years. That alters the game, because a new option presents itself with characteristics that aren’t represented on the one dimensional ideological scale. Those qualities are trust and consistency. Trust that the candidate will not shift positions out of convenience or be swayed by “interests”. The candidate also phrases policy in terms of moral imperatives rather than exclusively material aims, an important difference in language.
But perhaps most importantly, the one dimensional ideological scale is painfully inadequate. Because Drumpf.
The map is no longer one dimensional?
The median voter strategy is effective when competing against candidates who play on the left/right axis and when the views of voters follow a normal distribution along this axis. But this is not the case in this cycle, because we have an unconventional candidate in Drumpf. Drumpf isn’t following the strategy in the conventional sense. He is looking at a different map, a map that looks like this:
Trump plays hop-scotch on the ideological map, quite literally spanning left and right and surrounding the center.
And his views are not a fixed range on this map either. I had a tough time situating his tax plan which calls for no income taxes on any married couple earning less than $50,000. I ended up creating a separate circle for him near progressive taxation. The same goes for his critique of pay-to-play politics. It’s almost as if he plays hopscotch with ideological categories (which feeds into his narrative of independence). On this two dimensional ideological map, he encircles the center. If the center is weak because the electorate is polarized, the middle might be as empty as a doughnut hole. If the electorate is skewed towards the left, then a clear left candidate can fend off encirclement there and that might be the optimal strategy.
Trump iterates positions rapidly, picking and discarding ideas as he goes. Unlike conventional Republican politicians, he is permitted to do this because:
- He has no ideological debts to the conservative movement
- He claims to strive for effectiveness (that’s what “make a great deal” means)
- Voters have low expectations and allow him to learn as he goes along
You may think 3 is very unfair. For example, throughout the campaign, Drumpf said he would order US armed forces to “take out the families” of terrorists and commence torture. He reversed his position last Friday. Most politicians are wondering why he is permitted to test these positions our publicly, while they feel compelled to secretly poll-test even minor changes in position.
Now, to be blunt, we know the US has tortured people suspected of terrorism, we also know the US has delivered suspects into the custody of regimes known to torture. At some point in the campaign, I expect Trump to reference this and deride both Democrats and Republicans for letting each other get away with it.
More likely than not, he will walk away from his pivot with a reputation for moderation and flexibility with some portion of the population (it’s all negotiable).
Spanning the left-right divide
When his positions are evaluated, Drumpf does not sit on the conventional left/right divide. Quite literally, he spans the left/right divide on economic policies, with some that are populist (protectionist trade policies, progressive taxation, universal health-care) and others that have traditionally been on the right (deregulation, cutting Federal agencies). But he is careful not to take stances that directly penalize the poor and middle-class.
To those accustomed to conventional American politics it looks as if Trump hopscotches around the map, picking positions seemingly at random. He expresses socially liberal views (planned parenthood does great work), extreme authoritarian views on law and order (go after terrorist’s families), protectionist sentiment on trade (force companies to produce goods here), 2nd amendment rights and forced decryption in terrorism cases. The authoritarian bent is clearly evident, but there are a number of outlier positions.
Part of the reason many people engaged with politics brand him a “con-man” is that Trump does not subscribe to the ideological markers that have become rote in American politics. That is why you have the spectacle of so many Republicans saying he isn’t a “true conservative”.
Many political scientists do not recognize this dynamic, and remain wedded to the 65 year old, one dimensional model they were taught in graduate school:
Political scientists have had a pretty good idea since the 1950s of how voters tend to make their choices: by identifying which candidate fits closest to them on an ideological spectrum.
“They look and identify themselves on a liberal-conservative dimension, and they pick who is closer to them,” said Andrew Reeves, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis. “From that perspective, Sanders is positioned fairly far out there on the left.”
This is absolute nonsense of course, which is why independents are the largest party in america. They don’t self-identify on the liberal-conservative spectrum.
Look, the linear model is a tool. And it’s a good analytical tool for the job some times, and sometimes it’s not. In a contest with Cruz, it would be a useful tool, but with Trump it is less than useless. It’s downright dangerous with Trump, who jumps around on the liner model. In fact, as I note he jumps around on the 2 dimensional model as well. And if we were to create a 3 dimensional model with “soft issues” like character, trust and independence on them, I think he would jump around on that too.
Tone, Independence, Competence, Authenticity
Social choice theory has produced a number of important results that illuminatepolitics. But social choice theory focuses on policy issues. Perceptions about candidates’ competence, character, independence, authenticity are considered soft issues and largely superfluous. Part of the reason they are ignored is that they do not fit on the linear model, or on a two dimensional model. That which cannot be measured is ignored in such analyses.
The only time voters choose from a policy menu as per the model is when we have direct referendums and ballot propositions. We do not have those at the federal level in the US, though Switzerland does. There is a caveat, Bernie is suggesting mass civic engagement and public demonstrations can serve as a proxy for referendums.
In a presidential contest, voters are picking an individual in whom they see a reflection of their views and values concerning the world. They rarely look at this individual as a policy automaton. And if there’s one thing that Trump isn’t it’s a policy automaton.
If Bernie’s candidacy fails, I suspect in some eyes, the mantle of authenticity (no political correctness), competence (great deals) and independence (I didn’t take millions from donors) will pass to Trump. Worse, his ideological encirclement of Hillary may see voters on the economic left head towards Trump. And that is truly as frightening as MB laid out.
To many ears, his claims that he will “make the best deals”, playing fast and loose with ideology (“I’m my own man”) sound like independence and pragmatism, and it’s coupled with claims of competence (at making deals apparently). Playing the pivot to center game and assuming that will bag the median voters is a risk with a candidate who spans left and right. Especially if he can find the self-control to moderate his tone in the general election.
And moderating the tone will have an impact. He can claim many of the extreme positions are simply matters of degree and tone:
Hillary is for fences, I want a wall, apparently her problem is with how big and beautiful it will be and how I’ll make Mexico pay for it. If you’re going to say I shouldn’t be advocating torture, why didn’t anyone have the guts to prosecute Bush/Cheney first, who actually did it?
If he does moderate his tone, I expect the media narrative to change. You’ll hear talking heads blundering on about how presidential is sounds, and how it might just have been an act. They’ll be patting themselves on the back in a self-congratulatory orgy, deluded by the claim that they’ve moderated Trump with “tough media scrutiny”.