Amina Harrath
Published in post

The method behind Trump’s madness

The foundation of a democratic government is that it respects the will of the people as expressed through the ballot box. Unfortunately, strategic issues arise in voting, as voters will often have an incentive to misrepresent their true preference. This form of tactical voting is when the voter decides to vote strategically for a second or third choice who is a viable candidate, rather than voting honestly for the most preferred candidate.

In the first round of the 2002 French presidential election, the three leading candidates were the incumbent, Jacques Chirac, Socialist Lionel Jospin, and the extreme rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen. There were also several candidates of fringe left-wing parties. It was widely expected that Chirac and Jospin would emerge as the top two vote-getters in the first round and face each other in the runoff election. Therefore, many left-wingers naively voted for their most preferred fringe candidates in the first round. They were then surprised when Prime Minister Jospin received fewer votes than Le Pen. In the second round, they had to vote for the right-winger Chirac, the lesser of two evils in their eyes, so as to keep out the extremist Le Pain.

This is where strategy and ethics may collide. If the election will be won by Chirac whether you vote or not, then you may as well vote, truthfully, for your most preferred candidate. That is because your vote doesn’t matter. Your vote only really counts when it breaks a tie, i.e. when you are a pivotal voter. This is paradoxical. To the extent that your vote doesn’t matter you can afford to vote truthfully. But, when you become a pivotal voter, then you should be strategic. It is only okay to speak the truth when it doesn’t matter.

Avinash Dixit’s, ‘The Art of Strategy’ explains that the chances of one person being a pivotal voter is so small that it can be ignored in the case of a presidential election in a solid blue state like Rhode Island or a solid red state like Texas. However, in more balanced states – or, ‘swing states’ – like Ohio and Florida, the election result can be close. While the chances of breaking a tie still remain small, the effect of such a change is quite large.

In general election campaigns, both the Democratic and the Republican parties in the United States often adopt centrist policies to attract the swing voters in the middle of the political spectrum, ignoring their core supporters who hold more extreme views to the left and the right, respectively.

If the Democrats adopt a platform that appeals to the middle, the Republicans may stand to lose all these voters and therefore the election if they cater only to their core supporters in the economic and social right wings; if the Democrats cater to their core supporters in the minorities and the unions, then the Republicans can capture the middle and therefore win a large majority by being more centrist.

Trump’s presidential election, however, seems to break this trend. He did not attempt to appeal to the centrist voters. Rather, Trump “tells it like it is”. He is giving voice to opinions that have rarely been overtly adopted by influential presidential candidates. He rejects the notion of political correctness, and is himself disillusioned with the political process, exemplified by his refusal to commit to accept the results had Hillary won.

The nationwide polling average gave Clinton about a 3-point lead overall, and the state-by-state polls indicated that she would win at least 300 electoral votes. However, the polls proved to be wrong. It seems reasonable to conclude that many Trump voters kept their intentions to themselves and refused to cooperate with the pollsters.

James Comey’s (Former FBI Director) letter to Congress, which announced that the FBI was reopening its investigation into Clinton’s State Department emails changed the momentum of the race. A vote for Trump became a vote against Hillary. It was a way for people to express their dissatisfaction with “everything that is wrong with American politics”. She has been described as smarmy and dishonest. The lack of authenticity in her election campaign caused many to vote the other way. Again, Trump has never once pretended to be anything other than what he is. When asked about his tax returns, he said “that makes me smart” rather than denying it. Whatever the ultimate explanation for the poll’s failure to predict the election’s outcome, Clinton’s facade drove people towards Trump.

The days leading up to the election involved unfavourable ratings for both Clinton and Trump. US voters backed third-party candidates more than they had in years. About 5 per cent of US voters were directed towards Libertarian Gary Johnson, Green Party candidate Jill Stein, or independent candidate Evan McMullin.

Although it is impossible to say who would have won had third-party voters instead supported either Trump or Clinton, the margin remains large enough that it could have made a significant difference. In Pennsylvania – a swing state that counts for 20 electoral votes – less than 45,000 votes separated Trump and Clinton, while more than 140,000 went to Johnson and 49,000 went to Stein.

The 2016 elections defied the conventional wisdom from start to finish. According to game theory, normally, presidential candidates attempt to appeal to the middle and rally the nation behind a message of unity. Trump, however, won the White House by waging one of the most polarising campaigns in American political history. As well as this, voters usually pursue tactical voting when the chances of one candidate winning, or losing, are slim. But when it came to voting between Hillary and Trump, many neglected the option of strategic voting and instead supported third-party candidates. When it comes to politics, many vote for the candidate, rather than the policies they are advocating. It is a safe bet to say that the Trump presidency will be just as unpredictable as the election itself.

As with all IEA publications, the views expressed are those of the authors and not those of the Institute (which has no corporate view), its managing trustees, Academic Advisory Council or senior staff.

Amina Harrath

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