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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