Issues drove the 2016 election
Yesterday I wrote about how issues don’t matter – today I’m going to write about why they do. During the rise of Trump, one book was endlessly and ignorantly cited as a reason he “couldn’t” win and then just-as-ignorantly derided after he did. This book, known by most as just a tagline, is The Party Decides. The Party Decides is actually just part of a larger literature on intra-party politics known as the UCLA School, which I think actually explains the 2016 GOP primary quite well.
The key work in the tradition, “A Theory of Political Parties“, argues that the power-holders in political parties are organized “policy demanders” rather than elected officials. These organized demanders exert their will by demanding that office-seekers hew to a policy line, and primaries are a process of different interest groups pitting their will against each other. In this light, Trump won the nomination by organizing a previously-unorganized group of anti-immigration activists, voters, and media personalities. This was the most powerful organized group, beating out the smaller and splintered groups of economic and social conservatives.
It also addresses the question of why Trump did not suffer much in the general from the extreme stances he took to win the primary. The authors hypothesize that non-activist voters in general elections do not pay much attention, do not perfectly assess politicians’ extremism, and don’t punish them for extremism:
The fact that voters only infrequently penalize this behavior reflects not approval, but rather the limited capacity of voters to discern extreme policy agendas for what they are.
In this light, Trump correctly gambled that his extreme behavior required to win the primary wouldn’t kill his general election chances. The unusual media environment of this election, focused solely on the outrage-of-the-day, might have made the “policy blind spot” of swing voters even larger due to simply not hearing about Trump’s policy positions. Post-election reports of focus groups, with moderate voters in shocked disbelief when informed of Trump’s stated positions, suggest this dynamic played a large role in helping moderates justify a vote for Trump.
Issues may not have been a major driver in the general election, but were the crucial differentiator in the primary and allowed Trump to consolidate control of the party with a sufficient plurality of voters. Specifically, anti-immigration voters. Issues didn’t matter much to less-informed general election swing voters, which is why the conventional wisdom that Trump’s unpopular immigration stances would doom his general election bid proved false.
If nothing else, the election this cycle demonstrated that there are strong incentives for party activists to go for broke pressing their issue agenda in primaries rather than worrying so much about electability of candidates.