Policy wonks often grumble about the negligible role policy plays in the election process. Events like debates and speeches do little to encourage candidates to talk in detail about their policy proposals or give voters the tools to judge which proposals are most effective.
The 2016 Republican primary may signify the low point of policy’s influence on elections. Ben Carson has called for repealing the Affordable Care Act because it is the worst thing to happen to Americans since slavery. Donald Trump has campaigned on solving the U.S. immigration crisis by building a wall on the Mexican border and insists that the Mexican government will pay for it because he can make great deals.
But while voters have yet to punish Carson or Trump for these outlandish proposals, policy is beginning to impact the race in more subtle ways. As the top two outsiders maintain their lead in the primary polls, journalists are beginning to question Carson and Trump’s policy positions in greater detail.
Both have struggled in describing how to implement their policy objectives, revealing their weakness as political outsiders with no experience in elected office. While not yet evident in the polls, these weaknesses are hurting the outsider’s fortunes in terms of electability as measured by party endorsements and prediction markets.
October’s Republican debate on CNBC focused extensively on economic issues which left the candidates vulnerable to criticism of their tax proposals. Trump and Carson were questioned about the mathematical difficulties in both lowering tax rates and lowering the federal deficit.
As scored, Trumps plan would increase the deficit by $10 – $12 trillion over the next decade (see here and here for different estimates). Carson’s proposal for a 10% flat tax is less detailed, but is estimated to increase the deficit by $3 trillion in the first year.
Trump responded to criticism of his tax plan in typical Trump fashion.
Carson answered by denying that that the rate would be 10% and offered vague nods to “strategically cutting”, “getting rid of all deductions and loopholes”, and stimulating the economy as ways to make up the funds lost by implementing the flat tax. When pressed by moderator Becky Quick that he’d have to cut 40% of government spending to make his plan budget neutral, he replied simply, “That’s not true”.
Carson has also struggled on the specifics of domestic and foreign policy. In one notable exchange about his health care proposals on Fox News Sunday, Carson said he had discarded a previous proposal that would have ended Medicare and Medicaid, two federal health programs for the elderly and the poor. He also stumbled in describing the funding mechanisms for his new proposal, leaving moderator Chris Wallace (and health wonks) thoroughly confused.
Policy fluency matters because it demonstrates how prepared and well-executed a campaign is. Effective campaigns employ policy as a weapon by proposing clear solutions and wrapping these solutions into the larger narrative of the campaign. When asked about his lack of executive experience during the 2008 election, surrogates for Barack Obama repeatedly cited the success of his campaign as evidence of his preparation for the White House. In turn, his campaign effectively pinned Hillary Clinton down on her vote for the Iraq war.
This plays itself out in primaries through the debates. Candidates use high profile events like these to build a perception of electability by outlining solutions that speak to the concerns of the primary electorate.
Research by Alan Abramowitz shows that voters judged 1988 primary candidates in part by their chance to win the general election. As the early primaries passed, voters judged candidate electability on their performance in states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Since campaigns now begin well before the first primary states vote, candidates will seek out debates as an opportunity to build this perception of electability.
Voters aren’t the only group that supports candidates that are perceived to be more electable. Primary elections are often prefaced by the “invisible primary”, which occurs when party elites endorse and raise money for their preferred candidates. This stage, where “the party decides”, has typically favored insider candidates with extensive fundraising connections in the party. Outsider candidates, like Trump and Carson, struggle to compete in this phase of the campaign as shown by FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement tracker.
Frequent poll watchers might note that Donald Trump and Ben Carson have dominated the polls in the early primary season and have garnered support from over half of Republican voters. While this is true, polls are not the most accurate judge of a candidate’s chances this early in the primary season.
The prediction market is another method that can be used to judge the electability of primary candidates. Unlike polls, participants in prediction markets wager about what they think will happen as opposed to their preference. This encourages betters to be realistic about the chances of each candidate and consider issues like electability. These measures move more reliably in response to major events like a presidential debate. After the CNBC debate, prediction markets favored Marco Rubio, who had a strong response to his rival Jeb Bush and more substantive answers to policy questions.
As the primary election heads towards the first votes in Iowa and New Hampshire, watch for candidates to differentiate themselves further on policy issues. The wonkier the debate gets, the more it disadvantages Trump and Carson.
See more on the debates from Vox: