Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Trump, Khan, and the progress of social science

If Donald Trump had any capacity to control his impulses, nobody would be talking about the Khan family now.  The fact that we are, though, is a testament to Donald Trump's status as a valuable social science data point.  We cannot tell how important high quality candidates are in a presidential campaign without observing a low quality candidate as a point of comparison.  Enter Trump!

Consider campaign spending in presidential general elections.  Until 2008, we had no way to assess its impact because candidates were basically equally funded.  Fortunately for social science, Barack Obama is a lying hypocrite.  Oh, un-clutch those pearls.  Aren't you used to me saying stuff like that by now?  See, back before the election started, he promised to take "federal matching funds."  That means the federal government would match, dollar for dollar, the money he took in from donors.  But, the federal money comes with strings attached:  spending limits that would otherwise have been unconstitutional under Buckley v. Valeo (1976).  Once Obama realized that he could raise far more money than he could get with matching funds, he broke his promise.  McCain, however, couldn't raise nearly as much.  He was stuck accepting matching funds, and the attached spending limits.  So, Obama had a big financial advantage over McCain.  For the first time, we had a big discrepancy between the finances of one candidate and his opponent.

Did it matter?  Nope.  Not a bit.  With an economy in free-fall and the incumbent party having won two in a row, Obama got 53% of the vote-- right around what we would expect given financial parity.  What did Obama get for his financial advantage?  Bupkis.

Social science progresses when we observe data points that break from uniformity.  Obama's 2008 campaign was an outlier in financial terms.

Trump is an outlier because he makes the dumbest mistakes imaginable.  There is nothing dumber than picking a fight with the grieving parents of a fallen war hero.  The Khan speech wasn't even prime time.  All Trump had to do to let the story go away was just not attack them.  That's it.  But, Trump has no capacity to control his impulses.  We've seen this with Judge Curiel, and many, many others.

The question, from a social science perspective, is this:  what are the consequences of a recklessly impulsive candidate who can't stay on message and keeps shooting himself in the foot by attacking even the most sympathetic people?  We've never been able to answer that before because we've never seen a candidate so inept before.  Now, we have data.  I keep going back to the fundamentals.  The economy is growing tepidly, Obama is only slightly net positive in his approval rating, and the Democrats have won two in a row.  That is a difficult situation for the Democrats.  Over at RealClearPolitics, HRC's lead is back to an average of 4.4%, meaning back to that 4-5 point range that I was calling the stable range leading up to the conventions.  What are we learning?  That a party can lose an election that they should win if they nominate a candidate as inept as Trump.

Donald Trump is a (social) science project.

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