Voters & Prospect Theory: Trump Lessons Part 3

This concept from Behavioral Economics is important in understanding why Trump won. Simply put, prospect theory posits that individuals are risk averse when facing favourable prospects but are more accepting of risks when faced with losses.

In the case of the US elections, a significant number of voters had negative feelings about their current situation and their long-term prospects. They also felt Clinton would be unable to fix these problems, which they perceived as been systemic to the American political order. This made them less averse to taking risks such a voting for a wild card candidate like Trump.

A new national survey finds that Trump supporters overwhelmingly believe that life in America is worse than it was 50 years ago “for people like them.” Fully 81% of registered voters who support Trump say life has gotten worse, compared with just 11% who say it has gotten better (6% say it is about the same).

Most Clinton supporters take the opposite view: 59% say life for people like them has gotten better over the past half-century, while 19% think it has gotten worse and 18% see little change. [Source]

Most voters consider Donald J. Trump a risky choice for president, saying he lacks the right temperament and values, but he is seen as more transformative and better at handling the economy than Hillary Clinton, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. [Source].

Prospect Theory in Political Communication

This becomes especially interesting from a political communication perspective as it offers guidelines for messaging. A voting block existed whose perception of their current economic and social prospects was negative. Trump correctly framed his messaging to them about losses. e.g. “Make America great again” implies a loss that can be correct.

This poses a challenge to incumbent governments. If a sizable voting block is in a loss mindset, a continuity message will not be effective for them, even if there is a consensus that the alternative is risky. Negative campaigning that carries anti-risk message will not be effective with these voters.

In a Sri Lankan context, there is a case to be made that this was seen in the elections of 2015, with the effectiveness of the “good governance” message of the then opposition. Poor governance under the Rajapaksa government (nepotism / attacks on judicial independence / ethnic biases etc.) were motivating factors despite the continued personal popularity of the incumbent President and what was seen as a positive economic trajectory. This meant that the electorate was willing to risk a coalition of disparate partners as an alternative.

Ideology: Trump Lessons Part 2

The press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.

This was a great line from an article in The Atlantic and Trump’s billionaire backer Peter Thiel said much the same thing

 I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally. … I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not, ‘Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?’ or, you know, ‘How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?’ What they hear is we’re going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy.

For the purposes of this post, ideology refers to a broad set of principles and policy refers to the specific rules and activities that achieve these. Tougher immigration is an ideology and building a border wall is a policy.

Ideology vs. Policy

When cynicism about politicians is at record highs, a strong ideology has more weight than policy nuance. Expressing ideologically strong positions can convince voters that you will act on issues out of conviction; particularly to those who have seen successive generations of politicians promise to enact specific policies to fix their issues, only to let them down.

In a practical sense, campaigners will find it to their benefit to use strong metaphors – that they may have previously shied away from – when referring to issues. If there is a feeling that law and order are at a crisis point, saying that “places like Afghanistan are safer than some of our inner cities”  confers ideological credibility even if no-one actually believes that.

As cognitive linguist Professor George Lakoff has pointed out, metaphors are a powerful idea framing tool, and crucial to the way voters think about issues.

our brains are structured by hundreds of conceptual metaphors and frames early in life, that we can only understand what our brains allow, and that conservatives and progressives have acquired different brain circuitry with the consequence that their normal modes of reason are different.
What progressives call “rational arguments” are not normal modes of real reason. What counts as a “rational argument” is not the same for progressives and conservatives. And even the meaning of concepts and words may be different.

“Drain the Swap” is another great example of this kind of metaphor.

Sri Lanka & Yahapalanaya

Bringing a Sri Lankan element into this, it is worth reflecting on the elections Sri Lanka had last year. The coalition of parties and political figures that won both the Presidential and general elections in 2015, campaigned under the idea of Yahapalanaya (good governance). In hindsight, and given the challenges the new government has faced since (with a subsequent public backlash), one wonders how prepared both the public and the election winners were for translating an ideological ideal to policy.

Trump Lessons Part 1: picking your battles

The problem from a political campaigning perspective with the type of handwringing articles we’ve seen about Trump’s sexism and racism is that they focus on the wrong thing. This happens in Sri Lankan politics too. In the latter, there is a tendency in some circles to focus on the wrong aspects of Mahinda Rajapaksa’s popularity and vote base.

While it’s true that most if not all racists are Mahinda Rajapaksa fans, not all MR fans are racist. They vote for him because he represents a nationalist pride (including in economics and foreign policy) that is not perceived as being catered to by his opponents.

One of the many lessons from Trump’s victory is to focus on the correct issues when campaigning against ideologically strong candidates*. In Trump’s case, all the attacks on his sexism and racism were not relevant to voters who felt betrayed by the political and economic system. In hindsight, the focus should have been on relentlessly undermining the perception he was someone who could offer a fix for a broken system. With Hillary though, the Democrats picked the worst possible candidate for that message.

The messaging about sexism and racism, while it had its place in specific audience segment marketing, was not crucial to a large section of voters**. Note Hillary’s relative underperformance with certain female and youth segments.

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*Ideology will be discussed in Part 2

**The fact that the size and enthusiasm of this segment of voters was underestimated compounded the issue.