Bridgegate Matters (But Not How You Think)

Bridgegate, wherein Chris Christie and his flunkies created an intentional traffic jam in Fort Lee NJ in order to get back at the mayor, could absolutely matter for 2016.  No, not because it’s a career-ending offense or anything – it’s pretty amusing in its pettiness.  Instead, it could be a significant part of the “Invisible Primary”, the race before the primary where candidates compete in order to secure donors, align with significant power bases, and set up their campaign infrastructure.  Why?  It’s not because of the scandal itself, which is tawdry, petty, and vintage New Jersey.

Let’s look at it from the point of view of a significant Republican donor, and build an extremely simple model for how much they want to donate.  This could also apply equally well to an institutional support decision (e.g., a Chamber of Commerce or Focus on the Family endorsement).  We’ll posit four pretty simple and defensible assumptions:

  1. Donors derive utility from supporting candidates whose views they support.
  2. Donors also derive utility from supporting candidates who go on to win.
  3. Donors adjust expectations in a basically Bayesian fashion.
  4. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

So, that leads us to the following utility function:

U(Donor) = E(X) – P(V) – P(Y) + Uncertainty

So the utility is a number between zero and one, representing how satisfying a donor will find giving to that candidate.  E(X) is the donor’s expected value of Christie’s positions and views, or how closely his views align with a given donor.  This is a correlation score, also between zero and one and is unchanged by Bridgegate.  P(V) is the probability of defeat in an electoral contest, again between zero and one.  P(Y) is the probability that the candidate is hiding a career-ending scandal.  Here is where Bayesian priors come into play – the Bayesian prior is the default assumption someone holds, until evidence provides reasons to change your assumption.  So a donor’s initial assumption for all candidates is that P(Y) = 0.

Net effect: Donors like any candidates where the  correspondence of views is higher than their chance of defeat, and most prefer candidates with high victory probabilities AND closely-aligned views.  If two candidates are fairly similar in view alignment and probability of victory, even the hint of a scandal will swing most of the donors over to the cleaner candidate.

Bridgegate’s pettiness, and the seeming ease with which Christie’s team carried it out, is grounds to heavily reevaluate one’s prior estimate of P(Y).  All of a sudden, Christie seems like the kind of guy that could have a career-ending scandal lurking somewhere.  Donors don’t want to have to evaluate P(Y) individually – it’s hard to judge and any non-zero number is seriously bad news.  Especially if you’re an organization, the costs could be quite high – in that case, a negative utility represents the reputational costs associated with backing a loser.  Bridgegate is a very good signal to these marginal backers and donors that they should be searching for a substitutable politician.

In short – this made Christie’s path in the invisible primary much harder, and is a major boon to potential replacements like Scott Walker.

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