Dick Morris, a storied campaign manager and political pundit, was discussing the possibility of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) running for President on his radio program. AOC is a relatively junior Representative from New York City but has become the darling (and nominal leader) of the so-called Progressive wing of the Democrat Party. Morris believes AOC might be the Democrat candidate for the presidency in 2024, even though there is an incumbent Democrat president, Joe Biden. Since this is not a political science or politics blog, I am not interested in whether this prediction is correct or not, and I take no position on this.
What is important for my purpose is Morris’s reasons for making this prediction. How did he come to this conclusion? According to Morris, the Democrat party has a history of running to the extreme left when it comes under pressure. In his opinion, the abysmal opinion polls about the Biden presidency is driving the party to the left. Morris believes the Democrat party will move to a more extreme position and will nominate a more extreme candidate in the next election as a result of the current president’s relative unpopularity and subsequent voter dissatisfaction.
This is a surprising prediction from Morris. He was instrumental in the success of President Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign in 1996. During this election, Morris had Clinton move to the political center and Clinton was easily reelected. Morris labeled his strategy “triangulation”, taking the best from the ideologies of both parties. In his campaign Clinton adopted many political positions that had been traditionally associated with the Republican Party. In effect, Clinton was insulating himself from attacks from both ends of the political spectrum and was seizing the “political highground”. Clearly, Morris does not believe the Democrat party has been doing that and will not that in at least the next election.
Morris’s triangulation strategy is merely a restatement of the median voter theorem, familiar to any student of game theory and decision analysis. This theorem was an outgrowth of a model published by Harold Hotelling in 1929, creating the field of spatial economics. This paper was published before John Nash published his works and is an early foray into what became known as game theory. Hotelling postulated space was simply an arena for competition, particularly if the product being sold was a commodity. The optimal place for the competitors to set up shop is in the center, the “economic high ground” as it were. We see Hotelling’s theory put into practice everyday. Did you ever wonder why gas stations seem to cluster around one location or intersection? It is often maddening if you pass a cluster of gas stations and then find there isn’t another convenient gas station for a great distance. Nevertheless this is rational behavior for the station owners. If they move away from the central location they will lose business. Hence gas stations have no incentive to move away from the “selling high ground”.
Duncan Black adopted this economic theorem to the world of politics with the median voter theorem in 1948. This theorem states there is a mythical median voter. The median is the middle number in a sorted array of numbers. Applying this to the body politic and taking a little mathematical liberty, fifty percent of the voters will be more liberal than this voter, and fifty percent will be more conservative than this hypothetical person. To win an election you need to capture fifty percent of the voters plus one. If you want to win an election, then you will need to secure this person’s vote as this would give you an electoral majority of at least one vote.
Consequently, you will often see both candidates in an electoral contest move to the center in an attempt to capture the median voter. You can think of this as occupying the “electoral high ground”. It is easy to see the Morris triangulation strategy was simply another form of the median voter theorem. Why then does Morris predict the Democratic Party will move in such an irrational path? One could simply ascribe this to wishful thinking, but I believe the real reason is that sometimes people and organizations will act irrationally. After all, isn’t that the basis behind behavioral finance and economics?
Will AOC be the Democrat candidate in 2024? It is hard to say. We can only wait and see.
I was listening to The Sean Hannity Radio Show on the way to the University today. During the show, Hannity commented, “Democrats never learn.” No matter what your political affiliation, this statement flies in the face of modern economic theory and rationality itself. Even the most strident behavioral economist would object to such language. “Never Learning” means decisions are not updated for additional information as it becomes available.
The branch of statistics dealing with incorporating new information into decisions is Bayesian statistics. This has been called the basis of rational thinking. I would hesitate to adopt such a line of thinking but there is a key takeaway. Any large sophisticated organization such as the Democrat party would not fall victim to this delusion. It has many resources at its disposal including sophisticated polling techniques. Perhaps there is a heavy element of wishful thinking in political commentary…