Preference Cascade

As I mentioned at the end of yesterday’s post, I believe Bernie Sanders will win the Democratic party’s presidential nomination. I also believe that Donald Trump will win the Republican nomination. That second prediction isn’t much of one given the polls of the last few weeks. So let me add another one: I believe he’s going to have a much larger victory margin than current polls show. I believe each race will feature a massive preference cascade.

What is a preference cascade? The classic example involves totalitarian states – say, the Soviet Union or Iraq circa 2002. Residents in the totalitarian state really, really dislike their government. But the secret police abound, and anybody who doesn’t like the current regime suffers terrible consequences: imprisonment, torture, execution of themselves or their families. Saying you don’t like the current regime carries terrible consequences. If you have half a brain you lie about it, and tell everyone that you love it.

The thing is, your family, friends, and neighbors all hate it, too. But they’re also afraid to tell everyone about it, and for all the same, good reasons that you are. So everyone tells each other that the current regime is wonderful and amazing. Meanwhile, they secretly all hate it. But if you took a poll in the society, it would look like you have 97-99% approval ratings of the current regime (some people are too stupid to live, apparently).

But then a funny thing happens. The regime gets some cracks in it. The government starts collapsing losing its power as the Soviets did in the late 1980s; or the US invades and promises to kill your dictator, as in Iraq in 2003. It’s not quite so dangerous to voice how much you hate the regime anymore. So a few people get a little braver and speak out. Then their family, friends, and neighbors notice that those people didn’t get sent to Siberia, and they get a little braver, too. Then it grows, and grows some more, and eventually nobody’s afraid anymore and everybody’s telling each other how much they hated that evil regime the whole time.

That’s a preference cascade.

I think we will see two of them in this primary season. First, Donald Trump. I keep hearing people say that they don’t understand how he’s doing so well in the polls because they don’t know any Trump supporters. I see it in the news, from the typical left media types who don’t actually know any conservatives. But I also see it in my Facebook feed.

The thing is… I know a lot of Trump supporters, both personally and online. And I also know that a great many of them are afraid to admit it. I’m pretty confident that once it becomes clear how many others are also Trump supporters, they’re going to start speaking out more. I also think these people are afraid to tell even pollsters about it. They’re not afraid they’ll go to Siberia – they’re just afraid they won’t have any friends anymore. Scott Adams claims that Trump will persuade huge majorities by the end. I think he already has, at least of Republican voters. They’re just afraid to admit it still.

I think Hillary Clinton is in the opposite situation. The Democratic party consists of voters who are strongly feminist. They want to support a female candidate. But even more strongly they want to be seen supporting a female candidate. Hillary’s the only one they’ve got. And this time around, they can’t deflect criticism by supporting a minority candidate, either. It’s her or the old white dude.

Yet Clinton is a lying liar and they know it. She’s one of the most untrustworthy people ever to enter politics. Her politics are cold and calculating, shifting with the wind. Perhaps worst of all, the set of people who actually like her, even among strongly Democratic voters, basically consists of my sister and… my sister.

But Democratic voters are afraid to admit that they aren’t supporting the feminist cause, so they’re telling everyone they’re for her. All the while, her poll numbers keep slipping… and slipping… and slipping. Check out the chart below from the Washington Post. Hillary’s poll numbers are falling faster – and earlier – in 2016 than they did in 2008.

Hillary's preference cascade, visualized.
Hillary’s preference cascade, visualized.

Looking at current poll numbers, Hillary might still pull out the win in Iowa. If she manages it, expect a repeat of 2008: a long, hard fight for the nomination that carries on almost to the end before it becomes mathematically impossible for her to win.

I’m skeptical, though. I think Sanders just might pull it off in Iowa. He’s within spitting distance, and his polls are moving in the right direction (hers aren’t). Centrist democratic voters are afraid of the S-word (socialism). A caucus environment is the perfect one for them to lose that fear, as their friends start standing for Bernie – and their more conservative friends are across town at the Republican caucus, and won’t see them.

If Bernie wins Iowa and New Hampshire, then look for the preference cascade to hit fast. Expect him to get  a huge boost heading into the Nevada caucuses – enough to enter that state in a position very similar to where he now finds himself in Iowa. If he pulls that one out, too, then expect Hillary’s support to break, and to break hard.
Trump, meanwhile, will be riding his own preference cascade straight into the Republican nomination.

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