Voters & Prospect Theory: Trump Lessons Part 3

This concept from Behavioral Economics is important in understanding why Trump won. Simply put, prospect theory posits that individuals are risk averse when facing favourable prospects but are more accepting of risks when faced with losses.

In the case of the US elections, a significant number of voters had negative feelings about their current situation and their long-term prospects. They also felt Clinton would be unable to fix these problems, which they perceived as been systemic to the American political order. This made them less averse to taking risks such a voting for a wild card candidate like Trump.

A new national survey finds that Trump supporters overwhelmingly believe that life in America is worse than it was 50 years ago “for people like them.” Fully 81% of registered voters who support Trump say life has gotten worse, compared with just 11% who say it has gotten better (6% say it is about the same).

Most Clinton supporters take the opposite view: 59% say life for people like them has gotten better over the past half-century, while 19% think it has gotten worse and 18% see little change. [ Source]

Most voters consider Donald J. Trump a risky choice for president, saying he lacks the right temperament and values, but he is seen as more transformative and better at handling the economy than Hillary Clinton, according to the latest New York Times/CBS News poll. [Source].

PROSPECT THEORY IN POLITICAL COMMUNICATION

This becomes especially interesting from a political communication perspective as it offers guidelines for messaging. A voting block existed whose perception of their current economic and social prospects was negative. Trump correctly framed his messaging to them about losses. e.g. “Make America great again” implies a loss that can be corrected.

This poses a challenge to incumbent governments. If a sizable voting block is in a loss mindset, a continuity message will not be effective for them, even if there is a consensus that the alternative is risky. Negative campaigning that carries anti-risk message will not be effective with these voters.

In a Sri Lankan context, there is a case to be made that this was seen in the elections of 2015, with the effectiveness of the “good governance” message of the then opposition. Poor governance under the Rajapaksa government (nepotism / attacks on judicial independence / ethnic biases etc.) were motivating factors despite the continued personal popularity of the incumbent President and what was seen as a positive economic trajectory. This meant that the electorate was willing to risk a coalition of disparate partners as an alternative.

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