A little while ago I went rug shopping. Four rugs were laid out on the floor and among them was one with a pink motif that was dazzlingly beautiful. It was complex and sophisticated. If you had asked me at that moment which rug I wanted, I would have said the pink one.
This conviction lasted about five minutes. But then my mentality flipped and I started asking some questions. Would the furniture go with this rug? Would this rug clash with the wall hangings? Would I get tired of its electric vibrancy?
Suddenly a subtler and more prosaic blue rug grabbed center stage. The rugs had not changed, but suddenly I wanted the blue rug. The pink rug had done an excellent job of being eye-popping on its own. The blue rug was doing an excellent job of being a rug I could enjoy living with.
For many Republicans, Donald Trump is their pink rug. He does the job that they want done at this moment. He reflects their disgust with the political establishment. He gives them the pleasurable sensation that somebody can come to Washington, kick some tail and shake things up.
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But decision-making is a journey, not an early December snapshot. It goes in stages.
The campaign may seem old, but we are still in the casual attention stage. Every four years pollsters ask Iowa and New Hampshire voters when they made up their minds. Roughly 70 or 80 percent make up their minds in the final month of the race. Up until then they are busy with life and work and just glancing at the campaign. If you ask them which candidate they support, that question may generate an answer, but that doesn’t mean they are actually committed to electing the name they happen to utter.
Over at the FiveThirtyEight blog, Nate Silver looked at campaign-related Google searches in past years in the weeks before the Iowa caucuses. Until a week or two before the caucuses very few people are doing any serious investigations of the candidates. Then just before and after the caucuses voters get engaged and Google searches surge.
Silver produced a chart showing what this year’s polling would look like if we actually took the current levels of casual attention and uncertainty seriously. In that chart “Undecided” had 80 percent support. Trump had 5 percent support; Carson, 4; Cruz, 3; and Rubio, 2.
That’s about the best description of where the Republican race is right now.
Just because voters aren’t making final decisions doesn’t mean they are passive. They’re in the dressing room. They’re trying on different outfits. Most of them are finding they like a lot of different conflicting choices.
Human beings have multiple selves. The mind dances from this module to that module. When Montaigne tried to describe his mind, he wrote, “I cannot keep my subject still. It goes along befuddled and staggering, with a natural drunkenness.” In one mood Trump seems pretty attractive to some people. In another it’s Carson, or Cruz or Rubio.
But in the final month the mentality shifts. The question is no longer, What shiny object makes me feel good? The question is, Who do I need at this moment to do the job? Different sorts of decision-making styles kick in.
For example, there are two contrasting types of decision-making mentalities, maximizing and satisficing. If you’re choosing a marriage partner, you probably want to maximize. You want to find the very best person you are totally in love with. You’ll need that passion to fuse you two together so you can survive the tough times. You want somebody who can inspire and be a messenger to your best future.
But politics is not like that. Politics is a prosaic activity most of the time. You probably want to satisfice, pick the person who’s good enough, who seems reasonably responsible.
When campaigns enter that final month, voters tend to gravitate toward the person who seems most orderly. As the primary season advances, voters’ tolerance for risk declines. They focus on the potential downsides of each contender and wonder, Could this person make things even worse?
When this mental shift happens, I suspect, Trump will slide. All the traits that seem charming will suddenly seem risky. The voters’ hopes for transformation will give way to a fear of chaos. When the polls shift from registered voters to likely voters, cautious party loyalists will make up a greater share of those counted.
The voting booth focuses the mind. The experience is no longer about self-expression and feeling good in the moment. It’s about the finger on the nuclear trigger for the next four years. In an era of high anxiety, I doubt Republican voters will take a flier on their party’s future – or their country’s future.