How Donald Trump Won The Election: A Behavioral Economics Explanation


While the media focused on Donald Trump’s denigration of women, war heroes, Latinos and Muslims, Trump was building not just support but commitment from his core target — working-class, non-college–educated white males — to get out and vote. What was juvenile and embarrassing to the intellectual was the “silver bullet” that gave Trump believability, causing his core target to identify with him.

That believability was used to offer the core target the ultimate payoff — a demand for skilled manual labor, the real resource needed, according to Trump, to “Make America Great Again” (starting with its infrastructure). Note that Trump never suggested that technological leadership was needed to make America great again, for that was the domain of the educated elites, those who had shown that brain power, not manual labor, had made them millions without ever having to break a sweat.

Trump’s core target felt that what they had to offer was no longer valued by America, and what jobs were available were being siphoned off by immigrants. This made the core target believe that they no longer “counted,” i.e., they felt “discounted.” This is the classic behavioral economic paradigm of Reciprocity, in which one group (Trump’s core target) perceived themselves to have been treated “unfairly” (because the intellectual elites had been more successful and immigrants were taking their jobs). This “unfairness” was, perhaps, best defined by Trump’s claim that trade treaties were unfair to the American worker. Finally, Trump claimed that only he could make America great again, thereby eliminating the possibility of someone else at a later date accomplishing the same task and implying that this was the core target’s “last chance.”

Trump’s campaign execution was a simple yet elegant display of behavioral economics in practice as follows: 1. IDENTIFICATION — make such disparaging remarks about minorities that the core target “see themselves” in the candidate; 2. UTILITY — communicate the most motivating expected campaign result to the core target — a restoration of the value of their labor (and financial status), the cornerstone to making America great again; and 3. LOSS AVERSION — motivate the core target by suggesting that this was their only chance to recover their social and financial status, thereby empowering them to turn out in such record numbers that the opposition was overwhelmed. Trump’s cost-efficient strategy, focusing on the only voter audience with both sufficient numbers and a motivation that could be converted into turnout, resulted in a decisive victory, a disappointed opposition and bewildered pollsters.

What kept the pollsters from being more accurate? Just as with Brexit, most researchers had no mechanism to accurately assess the strength of voter preference, and, thus, the likelihood of turning out to vote. In behavioral economics terms, an accurate measurement of the magnitude of the Expected Utility associated with a Trump or Clinton vote was never calculated and, thus, never entered into the voter-turnout models. In short, the pollsters were in error because they stuck to outmoded techniques rather those used by Trump to construct and execute a winning campaign.

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