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Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Trump: Time to flop, er, flip: an economic analysis

Mike Smitka, Economics, Washington & Lee Univ

Trump has run a strategically brilliant campaign, playing the media to the hilt to speak to the very specific and fairly narrow section of the electorate who vote in Republican primaries. He employed his savvy for publicity to see that, no matter how much they spent, Donald would be the name on the home page of all the news sites, every day.

Only some of today's votes are in, but so far that strategy is working.

from the start, Trump needed only a third of the primary vote to garner the nomination

As I've argued on this blog, using the basic Hotelling model, to win the general election candidates need to move toward the center. I'm sure that Trump recognizes that.

I'm not a political junky, but my recollection from the preliminaries to the primary race – before anyone had actually declared – is that in the past Trump held many positions that suggested his own personal affinity would be the conservative end of the Democratic Party. (Logically he might better be thought of as at the liberal end of the Republican Party, but that apparently no longer exists as an electoral force.) Now if he wanted to run for president, could he win a primary race against Hillary? No, he would have to position himself as a centrist, and out-organize Hillary.

He realized, however, that he could trump the other Republican candidates, helped by the sheer number of rivals, none of whom demonstrated his knack for dominating the news. To the extent he has been consistent over the past several months, does he seriously hold the positions that have garnered him headlines? I suspect not, but again, I'm not a political junky. His campaign has been savvy, indeed brilliant, however reprehensible I find the tactics. (See for example this February Slate article on how he test marketed his hyperbolic statements to find which resonated best.) He's running a pragmatic, empirically-driven campaign, and has simply out politicked the professional politicians, aided by a bit of luck in that there were so many of them that he would need only a third of the primary vote to sweep up delegates. But again, he could see that when he threw his hat in the ring.

Trump will flip and flop ... but Hillary can't play the purist

To win Trump needs to move toward the middle. He clearly wants to win. So I expect him to show his true character, and by the end of March begin to flip and flop alongside the fishiest of characters. With her long life in the public sphere, however, Hillary can't play the purist against him, because her positions have shifted over time. Will Trump's current supporters be outraged? Surely they will be. But they won't opt for Hillary. He can and will ignore them.

Trump can and will ignore his current supporters

Addendum: For a very different analysis, rooted in empirical political science, see The Rise of American Authoritarianism. My analysis paints Trump as opportunistically responding to what seems to work. This Vox article paints him as responding, consciously or not, to personalities who are attracted to "authoritarianism." In contrast, The Rolling Stone in "How America Made Donald Trump Unstoppable" points to concrete issues among the Republican Party and its current candidates, including finding itself in the position of having multiple candidates who were good at raising money but terrible as campaigners, allowing a still comparatively weak candidate to handily march towards nomination as the Party's candidate. While more similar to my analysis, it is not incompatible with the story of the "activation" of that (fairly constant) swath of the human population who abhor change and love order.

Addenda: I will gradually add links here that track backtracking trump. These will suffer from a selection bias: mine.

  1. ...will abide by intl law which reverses many positions

Addendum:I've not noticed substantial flops over the past month (as of April 3, the original blog post was Mar 1). So ... either (i) Trump still believes the nomination is not his for the running so that he must continue to challenge the right-of-median-Republican Cruz or (ii) he is so enthralled by the current mudslinging that he's not willing to move beyond it or (iii) he really doesn't care about the general election. In contrast Cruz is naming advisors and so on, things that won't contribute to winning against Trump. But those he's picked for foreign policy, are staking out positions Bush Jr was unwilling to even discuss.

I look at foreign policy and economic policy, both areas where I have experience. I've seen little yet on economic advisors, other than mention that (former) Sen Gramm, of close Enron connections, is to be his chief advisor. His past record is one of impolitic statements and pushing to end all financial regulation, successfully inserting an Enron loophole. He didn't last long on McCain's campaign staff, though the reason cited – being too optimistic following the collapse of Bear, Stearns – strikes me as hindsight by critics.