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The Power of Thinking on the Margin
Because I understand the power of one vote–it’s very close to zero–I always vote in Presidential elections for the candidate who’s closest to my views. The first time I was able to vote in a Presidential election was in 1988 and from then until now I have voted for the Libertarian Party candidate.
That’s where thinking on the margin has led me.
But Presidential candidates have a much thicker margin. They make hundreds of decisions–about where to speak, how to debate, and what to say. When they are incumbents, they have a large input on many policy issues that can affect the outcome of the election.
Health economist (and friend) John C. Goodman sent me an email Monday with the provocative title “Why Trump lost the Election: Health Care.”
In it, he writes:
The editors of the Wall Street Journal, the editor of National Review (Rich Lowry) and John Goodman all agree: Trump didn’t endorse the plan outlined by Goodman and Heritage Foundation scholar, Marie Fishpaw.
Trump actually did the things Goodman and Fishpaw recommended, including allowing people to talk to their doctors by phone, email, and Skype; allowing employees to have access to 24/7 primary care as an alternative to the emergency room; and allowing employer-provided health insurance to be personal and portable. But Trump never talked about any of this. So, he didn’t get credit for any of it.
I think John is right. But one could also say that if he hadn’t been so incredibly rude and nasty in the first debate, he would have won also. (Although we now know in retrospect that Trump was probably awfully sick with COVID-19 during that first debate. When you’re sick, you tend to let out your inner self. And Trump’s inner self is nasty.)
Consider the fact that if Trump had received just 43,000 more votes, properly distributed, in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, he would have won the electoral votes of those three states. That’s a total of 37 electoral votes. Had Trump won those, he would have had 269 to Biden’s, wait for it, 269.
What would have happened then? It would have been thrown into the House of Representatives where each state delegation gets one vote. So California gets one vote and Rhode Island and Montana each get one vote. Etc. The vote is based on the November 2020 election results. Based on those results, Republicans had 26 votes. In that case, Trump would have won.
Interestingly, though, he might have had Kamala Harris as his Veep because the vote for Veep would have been by U.S. Senators. This is unclear, though, because the Senate is tied 50-50. Does anyone who reads this know?
Now back to the main point: Trump’s thick margin. As Holman Jenkins pointed out in an aptly titled Wall Street Journal opinion piece, “Trump Threw it Away,” January 6, 2020, Trump almost won. Jenkins wrote:
Of course the microscopic margin rankles—he lost the pivotal electoral votes of Georgia, Arizona and Wisconsin by fewer than 43,000 votes. He has every reason to be beside himself since he absurdly oversupplied these voters with reasons to vote against him and he still almost won.
Imagine a team so bad and good at the same time that it would have prevailed if it had fumbled the ball 1% fewer times in its own endzone.
Imagine what would have happened if Trump had been neutral, not nice but simply neutral, to the memory of John McCain. He probably would have won Arizona. (Of course, that’s like asking what would have happened if Trump hadn’t been Trump.) What if he had pointed out the record growth in median incomes for various minority groups? He might have won Georgia. What if had actually run a campaign based on his accomplishments up to the end of 2019? He might have won Wisconsin. Etc.
So although we voters can’t individually affect the outcome, candidates can influence the outcome with a few key decisions.
Reason magazine has a very good Nick Gillespie interview of former ACLU head Ira Glasser. (The bolded question is Gillespie, the rest is Glasser):
It wasn’t until my 30s that I began to understand free speech, that the real antagonist of speech is power. The only important question about a speech restriction is not who is being restricted but who gets to decide who is being restricted—if it’s going to be decided by Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon, Rudy Giuliani, [President Donald] Trump, or [Attorney General] William Barr, most social justice advocates are going to be on the short end of that decision. I used to say to black students in the ’90s who wanted to have speech codes on college campuses that if [such codes] had been in effect in the ’60s, Malcolm X or Eldridge Cleaver would have been their most frequent victim, not David Duke.
Was that a convincing argument?
It pulled people up short. They imagined themselves as controlling who the codes would be used against. I would tell them that speech restrictions are like poison gas. It seems like it’s a great weapon to have when you’ve got the poison gas in your hands and a target in sight, but the wind has a way of shifting—especially politically—and suddenly that poison gas is being blown back on you.
Back when I was at the University of Chicago, there was a great deal of controversy about the ACLU’s decision to defend the right of Nazis to protest in Skokie, Illinois (which had a large Jewish population.) In 1977, there were many Holocaust survivors in Skokie, so the ACLU’s decision was understandably highly controversial. Thus I was interested to discover that the strategy seems to have paid off:
How did Skokie turn out?
We won the case at every level. It even went up to the Supreme Court. It was an easy case legally because these bonding statutes had been struck down a million times before.
Meanwhile, some of the people who lived in Skokie—once we won the case and the Nazis said they were coming—did what the town should’ve advised them to do in the first place: They organized a massive counter-demonstration. About 60,000 people were ready to come. And then the irony of ironies is, when confronted with that, Collin and the neo-Nazis never came to Skokie. Once we won that case, it also allowed them to demonstrate in Marquette Park, which was what they had wanted to do all along. They also confronted a massive counter-demonstration there that never would have happened without the case. It completely overwhelmed them; they couldn’t be seen or heard. Right after that they fell apart.
One thing I’ve discovered in life is that bullies tend to be cowards.