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How Trump (and Others) Can Win[1]

In any election between Democrats and Republicans, there are those on the right and left who will vote for their party’s candidate no matter what.  The key to getting elected are the folks in the middle, those who are swayable, those who can be convinced.  These people by definition are the “undecides” so looking at the research around how people make decisions when faced with uncertainty is key.  That’s what we will explore here.

Let’s run through two thought experiments to get started…

  1. If I offered you $500 or the chance to flip a coin and if heads you got $1,000 and if tails, you got nothing, what would you do? If you are like most people (about two-thirds) you’ll take the guaranteed money even though you know there is an equal chance for a 100% upside.  But the chance for failure dominates this decision.  The big lesson is this:  When presented with a gain, people shun risk and stick with the status quo (the $500).
  2. You owe me $500, and I again offer you the chance to flip a coin. If heads you owe me nothing, if tails you owe me $1,000.  Would you believe that two thirds will flip?  The lesson here is that when presented with a loss, people are willing to accept risk.

With that, here’s our first big point:

When presented with a gain, people shun risk.
When presented with a loss, people are willing to accept risk.

What does that mean to candidates running for office?  It means that you must convince voters that voting for your opponent is equivalent to losing.  I.e. position yourself as the safe choice and voting for the other candidate is a losing proposition.

There are only two scenarios:

  1. You are the incumbent – here you need to make them feel safe, that they know exactly what they’ll get with you. Sticking with you, the status quo is safe, there will be no surprises.
  2. You are the challenger [2] – here you’ve got to convince people that the incumbent is a loser, that voting for him/her is a risky proposition. Remember, as the challenger you are perceived as a risk, but remember that when presented with a loss, people are willing to accept risk.  So, position yourself as the safe choice. Convince them that sticking with the incumbent is riskier and that going with you is the safe, less risky choice.

So, what does “the safe choice” mean?  “Safe”, compared to what reference point?  It’s all about how it feels to the voter.  Here’s another thought experiment.

Pretend you have three bowls of water in front of you, one extremely hot, another extremely cold, and one at room temperature.  If you put your hand in the hot water and then the room temperature water, you would perceive the room temperature water as very cold.  The opposite would happen if you first put your hand in the cold water and then put it into the room temperature water.

Depending on where you are coming from, the same water can feel either hot or cold.  But remember here that we are talking about the people in the middle, the undecides.  For them, the difference in water temperature is not big, but small.  They can be convinced their perception might be incorrect.

That’s why it’s up to you to tell them the temperature of the water.  This is called “framing” and Biden is doing it well.  In April 2024, with inflation running at about 3.5%, Biden claims “we have inflation under control!  It’s way down from a year ago”.  He’s choosing his reference point at 9.5% whereas most people use the 1.4% inflation point as the reference point because that’s what it was when he took office.  Biden is positioning himself as the “safe” choice with those statements.  And of course, he repeats that every chance he gets.

That leads us to our second big point:

You must constantly tell people the real reference point.

This means repetition.  This means repeating the same stuff over-and-over again.  The Democrats are doing that very well with their “Trump is a threat to democracy” mantra.  Virtually every time you see a democrat politician on the news, they are repeating that phrase ad nauseum.

What is it about that phrase that works?  The answer is that it’s simple and all encompassing.  It can mean a lot of things to a lot of people.  It also leads to a lot of discussion.

How should Trump respond?  He should not take the bait and try to explain why he is not a threat to democracy, rather, he should respond with one, all-encompassing catch-phrase of his own that frames Biden[3].  There are many, but here is the one I like:

Biden = Failure

This simple phrase meets all the criteria.  First, it’s true.  Only those on the extreme left could argue it’s false.  The key here is that it implies that sticking with Biden will result in more failure, more losses.  It also invites more discussion.  The natural question is “how did Biden fail?” and you could then say immigration, inflation, Afghanistan, Israel, overspending, etc.  The list goes on and on.

And, then of course, Trump or his surrogates could follow up with “Let me tell you how I’m different…”  Imagine every time Trump is in front of people, he repeats that phrase ten times.  Imagine every time Ted Cruz or Byron Donalds are on TV they repeat that.  Here’s what the conversation might look like:

Interviewer:  Tell me what Trump’s position is on inflation.

As we know, Biden has been a failure on inflation.  He has …  Let me tell you what Trump did as president… Here he is portrayed as the incumbent, as the safe choice who has done it before.
Interviewer:  Okay, what about immigration? Again, Biden is an abject failure on immigration.  He has …  Let me tell you what Trump will do…. Here he is portrayed as the challenger saying incumbent is dangerous and risky.

Bottom line: To win elections, you’ve got to understand how humans think and how they make decisions.

[1] This paper was written by Bob Hatcher on April 12, 2024, and is based upon years of research and study in the field of behavioral economics especially the works of Kahneman and Tversky.  The thought experiments mentioned are described more fully in “Thinking Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman.  Bob can be reached at rv*****@gm***.com

[2] Technically there is a third case, where candidates are in a primary, running to see who will run against the incumbent.  In that case, each candidate is a challenger, and the real question is whether they should be running against the other primary candidates or the incumbent.  That’s a topic for another paper.

[3] Trump attempts this with his catchphrase “Crooked Joe Biden” but that is not persuasive enough.  Being crooked doesn’t mean he’s made bad decisions or hurt the country, It also encourages those on the left to say “well, Trump is crooked too”.

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