Economics, Politics, and the Primary Elections
Forecasting election results based on historical voter turnout has demonstrated little success this election season. Mainstream media has not helped, and its integrity continues to decline because of increasingly obvious political biases. So where does one turn to for clarity? The YU Commentator, of course. This article examines what’s really driving the shocking primary results we’ve witnessed thus far, and what the candidates’ positioning on economic policy portends for the general election.
As the primaries continue to unfold, it’s become clear that we don’t understand voters as well as we did in previous elections. Traditional assumptions about voters have proven invalid, but one central premise does remain true: domestic economic policy trumps foreign policy in elections. Yes, we fear terror and are concerned about foreign conflicts, and we care deeply about the victims and refugees these conflicts produce. But our tangible fears center around having a job that enables us to provide our family with food, shelter, clothing, and education, and to put some money away for an uncertain future. Immigration, foreign policy, and defense policy gain importance as viewed through an economics lens. How are defense dollars best spent? How does immigration policy impact employment? How do we maintain our global standing without increasing our overwhelming national debt?
The traditional political spectrum of liberal and conservative ideologies is a disagreement over the balance between individual rights and the power of the government. Democrats and Republicans differ in their approaches of how best to achieve this balance in an equitable way to “insure domestic tranquility, provide for common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty.” The difference between the two parties with regards to economic policy fits right into this paradigm as well, and it revolves around a disagreement over how best to achieve a balance of equality and efficiency. Put simply, equality is about distribution of resources across society, while efficiency focuses on optimal production and resource allocation. Democrats believe in a strong government that needs to take an active role in creating jobs, paying for social programs such as healthcare, and raising taxes on citizens to pay for these programs. The result is a system that emphasizes equality--it’s the government’s job to ensure income equality for all. Conservative policy emphasizes government efficiency and enabling citizens to achieve greater wealth through increased autonomy, less regulation, less government spending, and lower taxes. The idea relies on providing greater incentive to work, which in turn results in greater productivity, idea creation, and increased opportunity for everyone. Further, it increases competition, which results in optimal resource production, thus creating economic growth.
It seems simple enough--people should vote for the party that has the policy they favor more. But how does the difference in policy explain the events of this current election, namely the rise of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump? The answer is that it extends beyond just this difference in policy between the two parties.
Supporters of these two candidates have seemingly emerged out of nowhere and have staunchly supported their candidates to much success thus far. But who are these Sanders and Trump supporters? There is strong anecdotal indication that a good many of them are people who did not vote in previous elections. So unsurprisingly, analysts struggled with gaps in their previously reliable demographic patterns. Interpolating results across demographics proved futile. Insufficient empirical data resulted in inaccurate forecasts of primary results and candidate viability. But in the process of being wrong, we learned that this election is less about who people vote for than who and how many people vote. We learned the obvious: we can’t accurately predict voting patterns of people who have not previously voted. For polls predicting continued success for Trump and Sanders to come true, it is these “people who don’t normally vote” who will have to continue showing up at the ballots in primaries and eventually in the general election.
But how do we understand these “people who don’t normally vote” in light of the two parties’ economic policies? Presumably, if you’re a fiscal Republican, you’d be happy to vote for any Republican candidate, establishment candidates like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio included. And if you believe in the Democrat’s economic policies, you’d coalesce around Hillary Clinton. So why have people gravitated so strongly to Trump and Sanders? To explain the rise of these two candidates, one has to look through a wider lens which includes anger over traditional political candidates and their economic policies, as well as the economic policies of previous presidents.
Prevailing consensus, up until this election, stated that general elections would always come down to a traditional Democrat versus an establishment Republican. (Left-leaning Hillary Clinton against a right-leaning opponent, with Jeb Bush as the likely frontrunner). Both Hillary and Jeb made important decisions up front to focus on protecting their political bases rather than spending money and effort trying to expand their bases. This decision was important because it dictated their economic policy positions as comfortably near the political middle. But these decisions created an opening for a candidate (or two in this case) to appeal to those outside these protected bases. Enter Sanders and Trump who did just that.
With Hillary and Jeb busily focused on protecting their near-middle bases, Sanders and Trump spoke in simple language about changing the status quo to people who didn’t care to comprehend the incomprehensible policy-speak of the front running candidates. Using plain language, they attracted a following that has at times appeared viral.
Sanders’ emergence as a viable candidate with a base even further left than Hillary puts her in a precarious position. She expected the primary battle to be little more than a necessary formality that would be over months ago, allowing her to completely focus on her Republican competition in the general election. Further, her long-standing game plan presumed the Republican candidate to be from the establishment--if not Jeb, then Marco Rubio or someone of his ilk.
As a result of these two developments, Hillary has had to simultaneously balance two tasks. On the one hand, she has to appeal to voters outside her left-center base which is a difficult proposition in and of itself given her track record and strong alignment with the current administration’s policies and her association with Wall Street bankers who are bankrolling her campaign, at least according to Sanders. And if that isn’t difficult enough, it’ll risk alienating the political middle--many of whom reside in the battleground states that decide presidential elections. On the other hand, Hillary has to keep a close eye on the Republican circus and plan for multiple scenarios in the general election, since she could face Trump, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, or perhaps a different candidate altogether if a brokered Republican convention results in the nomination of a different candidate.
But interestingly, the heated battle has kept Cruz and Kasich repeating their original economic policy positions, while Trump has been consistent in his willingness to say pretty much anything at anytime to anyone without the burden of explaining how he will do what he says he will do. That’s exactly why many of his backers support him, and they love it when the mainstream media flails trying to get him to explain anything. Other than the occasional barb hurled Clinton’s way, the three Republican candidates’ rhetoric has not swayed much since the start of the primaries. So ironically, whoever emerges from Cleveland as the Republican candidate may in fact be stronger because of the circus from which he emerges.
When looking at, and planning ahead for, the general election, the most important number is the roughly 40% of eligible voters who have not bothered to vote in previous elections. How many of these voters emerged from their silence only because they support either Sanders’ or Trump’s plain-speak economic policies? Will they retreat back into their cocoons if their candidate is not the nominee, or will they vote for one of the other candidates? Or perhaps they may vote for the other party’s candidate simply because of their disdain of how the government operates today, with any drastic change being better than the status quo. For many of these people, their vote will be an anti-vote--anyone but the other candidate. Our next president will be decided by how many people energized by Sanders or Trump will show up at the voting booth even if their candidate is not on the slate, and who will get their vote. That’s at least as good a prediction as the media experts have been able to put forward.