Trumping Incentives: Why Trump hasn’t been stopped but still might be

Much has been written about why Donald Trump is on track to become the Republican presidential nominee. Theories range from Trump as a response to Obama’s upending of racial hierarchy to Trump as an authoritarian figure to economic anxiety presenting itself as support for Trump. Frankly, our technical approach to punditry has very little to offer as to why Trump has appeal and so we won’t bother analyzing Trump through that lens. However, an equally interesting question is why he hasn’t been stopped. For the first several months of the Trump candidacy, pundits, politicos, and even our team were all convinced that Trump’s early support was an anomaly. It was quickly chalked up to another Santorum/Gingrich-type early surge. The thinking went that because Trump was so extreme and so despised by GOP elites, his support would drop. Man, were we wrong.

Although Trump still struggles to win majorities in most states, he is consistently winning pluralities and is well on his way to the nomination. Admittedly, it isn’t entirely clear that he will win the required majority to win on the first ballot, but he may have a sizable enough plurality to win over unbounded delegates and still pull it off. So why is it that nothing has been able to significantly stop Trump?

One of the reasons may be that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, people don’t think that differently about putting a check in a box and answering a question on the phone. Kristen Soltis Andersen at National Review summarizes the conventional wisdom as such: “Some people may say they plan to vote for Trump, but, in reality, they haven’t had to deeply consider the question and so they just say the last name they heard on the news.” (It is important to note that Andersen does not actually take this view as the truth, she merely says that it is the view held by many.) However, it is pretty clear that this is not the case. In fact, as actual elections have started and the primary calendar continues on, Trump’s support nationally continues to climb.

So why is the conventional wisdom flawed on this point? Well, the core assumption behind this theory is that when someone enters a polling place (or caucus site) and puts that check mark next to a name, they think more about the ramifications of their vote than they do when called up by a pollster. However, thinking about the voters’ incentives in the two situations reveals that there is no reason for a different thought process. When asked by a pollster1 to state their preference, the external cost of doing so is zero: polls don’t actually decide outcomes. On the other hand, the conventional wisdom is predicated on a nonzero external cost to casting a ballot2. While the cost may be nonzero, it is essentially zero, as the probability of a single voter’s vote deciding an election is so small, that any costs associated with casting a ballot can be considered zero3. This means that there is very little reason to think that people have significantly different thought processes when casting a ballot and when answering a poll.

With the idea that people would change their mind as election day approaches, the other assumption that many made was that the party would decide. This line of thinking posits that in general, candidates who are broadly acceptable to party leaders tend to win elections because they have easier access to the party’s resources. Well, kind of. There is a lot more complexity then that to the argument, which was first presented in the 2008 book The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform. In this election cycle, the rise of Trump has prompted possible reevaluation of this work. Daniel Drezner, a professor at Tufts University, posits that in fact, The Party Decides is why the GOP has not stopped Trump. Drezner argues that because the broad punditsphere was so convinced that the party would stop Trump, the party forgot that it actually had to stop Trump.

This idea may be a bit far fetched and is not necessarily true, but it starts to hit at something: Trump is succeeding because the party is failing. Specifically, the party is failing at coordinating. In economics, a coordination failure occurs when a group of firms in an industry is capable of achieving multiple equilibria. However, in order to reach the highest equilibrium, they must coordinate, which they fail to do, forcing them down to a lower equilibrium. The same concept can be applied to this election: Trump may represent an equilibrium in the GOP, but he is certainly not the highest equilibrium. However, because the party failed to coordinate, it failed to achieve a higher equilibrium, such as Marco Rubio or Jeb Bush.

So why did this coordination failure occur? Well, staying in the realm of economics, this coordination failure is likely because the costs of coordination were high and the costs of not coordinating seemed low. In order for GOP leaders to coordinate, they would have had to settle early on one particular candidate and pour resources into that campaign in order to beat Trump. This is costly because it would have required them to force other well-qualified candidates out and for much of the campaign, GOP leaders seemed unwilling to settle on a candidate. Even now, as many GOP elected officials are endorsing Ted Cruz, they are doing so rather reluctantly. On the other hand, because of a belief that Trump could never win and a low probability of support from a single person making the ultimate difference, individual GOP leaders were presented with a low cost of not coordinating. This meant that for much of the campaign, the cost of a coordination failure was seen as small compared to the costs of coordinating.

Now however, the cost calculus seems to be changing. Ted Cruz is slowly picking up more and more endorsements, indicating that many party leaders are viewing him as the last best hope to stopping Trump. But even if Cruz picks up steam, it may be too little too late: Cruz is still incredibly unlikely to win the nomination before the convention. But, the hope for many is that Cruz may be able to prevent Trump from wrapping up the nomination before the convention, leading to a contested convention and the possibility of nominating someone else.

Which leaves one last question: if it comes to a contested convention, isn’t the same coordination failure going to repeat itself? That seems unlikely. Once again, we can take a look at the incentives of delegates at the convention4. Delegates to the Republican National Convention are not normal voters; instead, they frequently have deep ties to the GOP. This may mean they are related to big donors, are elected officials or people who have a large stake in the GOP. This is important because they have a different set of incentives: Most importantly, many delegates have a selfish incentive for a strong party. Many within the party view Trump as an existential threat to the party, and therefore the cost of nominating him is astronomical. If the delegates hold that view, which is likely given the composition of delegates, then the cost of a coordination failure is equally astronomically high. Additionally, with less than 2,500 delegates at the convention, the probability of any one of them casting the deciding vote is much higher. Especially if Trump gets close to the required 1,237, the cost of any one vote becomes very high, providing further incentive to coordinate.

Of course, there is a potential cost, both to individual delegates and the party of denying Trump the nomination. Many in the base may see that action as undemocratic, putting the political careers of individual delegates and the future of the party at stake. However, it seems like many believe that denying Trump the nomination may be a necessary evil to securing the future of the party. It may be close, but a close examination of the incentives at play will continue to provide valuable insight.

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Doing the Delegate Math in the Wake of Super Tuesday

With Super Tuesday now behind us and hundreds more delegates awarded to their respective candidates, the path to the end of the primary season seems much more clear.  The big delegate winners of the night were Trump and Clinton, who won seven states each.  However, the endgame of the primaries is not to win the most states but to win the most delegates, so let’s take a look at the number of delegates each candidate has won to date.

The Democratic side only has two candidates competing for the nomination, so it should be the easier side to analyze.  However, giving delegate totals for the Democratic side is actually a little tricky due to the large amount of superdelegates whose votes are not tied to any primary or caucus result.  Many, but not all, of these superdelegates have already expressed preference for one candidate or the other, allowing us to include them in each candidate’s delegate total.  However, it is important to recognize that these superdelegates can change their support at any time leading up to the nomination.

Including superdelegates, Hillary Clinton has 1,052 delegates to Bernie Sanders’ 4271.  2,383 delegates are required to win the nomination.  This means that Clinton still requires 1,331 delegates to clinch the nomination.  Considering that there are 3,284 Democratic delegates not yet allocated, a little bit of division tells us Clinton needs to win 40.5% of the remaining delegates to secure her position as the Democratic nominee.  On the other hand, Sanders would require 59.6% of the remaining delegates to win the nomination.

However, there is a critique to counting superdelegates in the totals at this state of the nomination process.  Since superdelegates are not bound to candidates, they can change their preferences and affect our previous calculations.  Many Sanders supporters argue that if Sanders starts outperforming Clinton later in the primary process, superdelegates that currently support Clinton will be pressured to support Sanders.  Since Clinton currently has an overwhelming lead in superdelegate support, this would make the nomination easier for Sanders.  We can mathematically adjust for this assumption by ignoring the existence of superdelegates and calculating how many regular delegates each candidate would need to clinch the nomination.  This model works under the assumption that superdelegates will ultimately cave in to popular support.  Ignoring superdelegates, Clinton still has a delegate lead of 594 to 405.  In this hypothetical system, winning 2,026 regular delegates ensures a majority, and Clinton would need to win 46.9% of the remaining delegates while Sanders would require 53.1%.  So yes, Sanders supporters are correct in arguing that a late superdelegate shift would help their candidate, but it is important to note the effects of such a shift are minimal.

The Republican side is a little more complex, as there are more than two candidates to consider.  It takes 1,237 delegates to win the Republican nomination.  Of the 695 delegates already awarded, Donald Trump has 319, Ted Cruz has 226, Marco Rubio has 110 and John Kasich has 252. Interestingly, even though Trump has been billed by the media as the presumptive Republican nominee, he has only won a plurality of the delegates so far and not the majority he would need to win the nomination without a brokered convention.  Trump needs to win 51.7% of the remaining delegates to win the nomination, while Cruz needs 56.9%, Rubio needs 63.4% and Kasich needs 68.2%.  Of course, due to the possibility of a contested convention for the Republicans, the candidates know that they do not necessarily need to win a majority of the delegates to have a shot at the nomination.  Instead, they simply need to prevent other candidates from winning a majority.

So, if Hillary only has a slim delegate lead over Sanders and Trump hasn’t even won a majority of delegates so far, why is the media portraying them to be the presumptive nominees?  The answer is less to do with math and more with scheduling.  The early Republican primaries and caucuses tend to allocate delegates more proportionally, while the later ones allocate using a winner take all system.  In most states, Trump has rather safe, steady leads, and instead of having to split delegates proportionally with the losers, he will soon win all delegates from each state.  This is crucial for Trump, who leads many states with a comfortable plurality of voters but not a majority.  That situation has cost him delegates up until now, but starting March 15th when every contest is winner take all, he will be racking up all the available delegates without having to worry about his margins of victory.

Meanwhile, the early primary and caucus states have actually been rather generous to Sanders demographically.  Nationally, he is losing to Clinton 52% to 38%, and his 14 point deficit puts him in an especially dire situation because, unlike the Republicans, Democrats award their delegates more proportionally.  This means that he not only needs to catch up to Clinton in a more diverse slew of states than he has already won, but he also must win by large margins in order to overcome his current delegate deficit.

At the end of the day, can we say for sure that Trump and Clinton have their respective nominations locked up?  The numbers say no.  But perhaps more importantly, the calendar says that unless something drastic happens soon, the numbers won’t be so tenuous for long.

 

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