Presidential Primaries and Ideological Satisficing

Today I have a piece in Politico Magazine under the grabby but somewhat misleading headline "Left Turn = Dead End?" (So you know, for better or worse, writers don't usually write their own headlines.) My main point is that while economic populism is always good politics for Democrats, it isn't enough to just stake out the leftmost position (on economics or anything else) and hope that can win you the Democratic presidential nomination, just as it isn't enough to be the most conservative candidate in a Republican primary. There will indeed be an ideological debate within the Democratic party in advance of the next presidential election, which is a good thing. As they approach the end of the Obama years, Democrats are going to have to hash out who they are, what they believe, and where they want to go. But the reason being the most liberal candidate is insufficient is that primary voters aren't ideological maximizers, they're ideological satisficers.

Satisficing is a term originated in the 1950s by economist Herbert Simon, who argued that the classical understanding of economic actors seeking to maximize utility not only didn't make much sense (because obtaining all relevant information to reach that maximal point can involve huge costs), but didn't reflect the way people and firms acted in the real world. Instead of making the best choice, people often search for something that is good enough. After some threshold of acceptability is reached, they stop their search. If there's a reasonably good taqueria down the block, you're not going to spend weeks searching for the best burrito in the state; you'll just get your burritos there. And subsequent research suggests you'll be happier for it.

In presidential primaries, we've seen the same pattern many times. There's an establishment candidate the base doesn't trust, and they have to spend a bunch of time assuring voters that they're on the side of the ideological angels. Some of these efforts are strained, or even embarrassing (see Romney, Mitt). But eventually, they almost always succeed. The primary voters decide that even if the candidate isn't the most liberal (for Democrats) or the most conservative (for Republicans), he's liberal/conservative enough. This was true even in 2008. Barack Obama certainly had more support than Hillary Clinton from the party's liberal wing, but by the end the argument was more about their respective theories of change than which of them was more liberal. And as I say in the Politico article, if she runs next time, Clinton isn't going to have to promise to throttle Jamie Dimon with her bare hands, she'll just have to show primary voters she cares about inequality, which probably won't be all that hard to do. Here's an excerpt:

If that serious challenger to Clinton does emerge, he or she is going to need to do a whole lot more than run to the former secretary of state's left, because in presidential politics, ideological crusades almost always fail. In the last half-century, spanning 13 presidential elections and 26 nominees, there are only three candidates one could plausibly argue became a party's nominee by being the most ideologically true candidate. All three—Barry Goldwater in 1964, George McGovern in 1972 and Ronald Reagan in 1980—ran superlative primary campaigns. And none had to overcome a candidate with the strength Clinton would have in 2016.

To repeat, I'm not arguing that it's bad politics for Democrats to talk about political inequality and wage a populist campaign. Quite the contrary: that has been the most potent Democratic message when running in general elections for decades, and will almost certainly still be in 2016. It just isn't enough, in and of itself, to get the nomination.

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