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Donald Trump and the new rules of politics

Donald Trump and the new rules of politics

Voters and parties vacate the centre ground

by Meghnad Desai

Wed 9 Nov 2016

John Kenneth Galbraith, the Harvard political economist, is credited with inventing the expression ‘conventional wisdom’, referring to ideas which sound so plausible that, after a while, everyone stops questioning them. People may not know where the ideas originated, but acquire a sense of being in the mainstream by repeating what everyone else is saying.

One such conventional wisdom is that political parties should move to the ideological centre, where most voters are. On the electoral extremes there are a few stragglers, but parties who cultivate them never get anywhere. The idea originates not in politics but in location theory. In a paper from the 1930s Harold Hotelling applied this principle to where shops should locate. Common sense would suggest locating far away from your competitors, so shops would be randomly distributed over a large space. But if the buyers were normally distributed over the same space, it would benefit shops to locate near each other in proximity to the buyers.

Anthony Downs developed this idea for a non-ideological theory of democratic politics in his book, An Economic Theory of Democracy: don't try to convince voters of your political philosophy. Instead, find out what they want and package your policy to maximise votes. Europeans were appalled, as they liked ideology, but the Americans were thrilled. This was during the late 1950s, when statistical techniques were being developed. Voters could be surveyed about their political preferences. You could break down the electorate by class, race, gender, location, and income, and get increasingly sophisticated predictors of voting behaviour.

All this is prefatory to saying that Donald Trump ignored this theory. Instead of moving to the centre, he stayed on the extremes. His behaviour puzzled his rivals. During the primaries, the other Republican contenders could not take him seriously. He was rude to candidates like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio. No one thought he would be ahead at the end.

The Democrats could not believe that a man whose speeches are racist and misogynist might have had any chance of defeating a serious politician like Hillary Clinton, who maintains the correct combination of liberal tolerant beliefs. Nonetheless, opinion polls were in disarray, and the margin between the two in terms of the popular vote was not statistically significant.

With Donald Trump’s victory, there will have to be a new way of modelling politics. Pollsters must stop asking the standard anodyne questions. They may have to find techniques where voters reveal their true preferences. This is not easy, as economic theorists have discovered. Polling companies may also need to recruit pollsters from outside the conventional wisdom clubs.

In the last three years, there have been many several reversals for pollsters. The 2014 Indian election surprised people because they shut their eyes and ears to what was happening. They did not believe that Narendra Modi could be taken seriously. The centre ground they were exploring no longer attracted voters. Even his own party did not understand how, while breaking the rules, he could win.

Two further episodes occurred in the UK. The 2014 Scottish independence referendum was misread by YouGov, a leading pollster, until the final days. They predicted the independence vote to win. Panic ensued, and David Cameron made more promises to Scotland. The result had a margin of 10 percentage points for the stay vote.

Then Brexit happened in June. Again, there was incredulity that the Leave vote could win. All the right-thinking people knew it would be a disaster and concluded that everyone would behave ‘sensibly’. Yet the results showed an almost 4 percentage point margin in favour of leaving the European Union. Of the roughly 34 million total votes cast, 18 million were for Leave and 16 million for Remain. But considering just England, the margin was wider – 7 percentage points, with 15 million for out and 13 for Remain.

The Downs model is broken and cannot be fixed. This has a profound consequence for democratic politics. Instead of two large parties, we may get sharp ideological factions which will bid not for majority but for a seat at the top in some coalition. European politics on the continent has been going this way since the euro area crisis, beginning in 2009. In America, Trump has split the Republican Party. Next time around, there may not be a two-cornered contest.

Lord (Meghnad) Desai is Emeritus Professor of Economics at the London School of Economics and Political Science and Chairman of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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