Friday, March 25, 2016

Trump to Political Science: Drop Dead? Part, oh why bother counting?

As the next installment in the Trump to Political Science series, let's talk about the most obvious reason Trump may beat expectations in the general election.  He's a chameleon.  Or, a shapeshifter.  Or, or something.

When we use political science models to examine candidates, we must assume that their past predicts their future.  In congressional elections, the more experienced candidate has a strong tendency to win.  That usually means the incumbent.  All other things being equal, the more moderate candidate tends to win.  (See my examination of Trump on that dimension here and here).

But, what happens when one candidate is so malleable that his past no longer predicts his future?  Once upon a time, Donald Trump advocated single-payer healthcare and tax increases on the wealthy.  This is why Republican elites are so terrified of him.  They don't trust him because what he says at any given time is whatever he thinks is most in his interest at the time.  If, for example, he became president and a 2018 midterm gave control of the House to Nancy Pelosi, Republican establishment types wouldn't trust him to oppose Pelosi.

Right now, Donald Trump's campaign is based around mobilizing anti-immigrant attitudes and other nationalistic impulses.  Will he do that as the Republican nominee?  Certainly not.

Donald Trump may be a pathological liar, a bloviator, a raging egotist and grossly ignorant about how political processes work, but he is a master of branding himself.  He knows that what may work in a Republican primary isn't what will work in a general election.  And he will change.

What will he say?  I have no idea.  None whatsoever.  The campaign, though, will be a contest of framing.  Hillary Clinton will do her best to make sure the campaign focuses on what Trump has been doing to win the primary.  Trump will try to change the subject to something that will be more favorable to him in a general election.  We have no idea what that might be, but we do know that Donald Trump is a master of getting the media to talk about whatever Donald Trump wants to talk about.

Normally, general election campaigns don't do much.  Competing campaigns tend to cancel each other out, and the outcome reverts to whatever the state of the economy would predict.  Donald Trump is a master campaigner.  Far better than anyone expected.  How far will that take him in the general election?  Let's be cautious.  It is time to stop underestimating Donald Trump.

The odds-makers don't think much of his chances.  They didn't with respect to the nomination either.  His general election campaign will be fascinating to watch, impossible for the media to ignore, and nothing like what we have seen so far.  Stay tuned...

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