Trump Voters: Not So Irrational

The political scientist who applies the ‘rational choice’ theory of economics to voters says there was a method to the GOP’s primary madness.

New York

Shortly before the May 3 Indiana primary, a video of a Donald Trump supporter accosting Ted Cruz went viral. Surrounded by a throng of Trump fans shouting “career politicians have killed America,” the Texas senator tried to engage the man in a mock debate—without much success. Mr. Cruz made several attempts to discuss Mr. Trump’s record, then finally gave up and told the man that Mr. Trump “is playing you for a chump,” adding: “Ask yourself . . . why the mainstream media wants Donald Trump so desperately to be the Republican nominee?” The Trump supporter—whose favored candidate reportedly has enjoyed $2 billion in free media coverage—replied: “They’ve backed you every chance they get.”

Episodes like that, combined with Mr. Trump’s romp through the Republican presidential primary season, have shaken many people’s faith in the American electorate. But what if Trump voters, however uninformed, are still making a rational decision by backing him?

That is the contrarian argument advanced by political scientist Samuel L. Popkin of the University of California, San Diego, who has studied public opinion and elections for half a century. A native of Superior, Wis., the 73-year-old Mr. Popkin has also served as a consultant for the presidential campaigns of George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Mr. Popkin is perhaps best known for applying the rational-choice theory of economics to voting.

His seminal 1991 book “The Reasoning Voter” argues that voters are public investors who “expend effort voting in the expectation of gaining future satisfaction.” They “combine, in an economical way, learning and information from past experiences, daily life, the media, and political campaigns” to make reasoned judgments about politicians.

One of Mr. Popkin’s favorite examples of how “low-information voters” use “cues” to form logical conclusions is Gerald Ford’s eating an unshucked tamale, which signaled to many Latino voters that the president didn’t understand their culture. History repeated as farce this week when Mr. Trump on Cinco de Mayo tweeted a photo of himself eating a taco bowl: “The best taco bowls are made in Trump Tower Grill. I love Hispanics!”

Mr. Popkin, who was in New York City visiting family, sat down to talk on Wednesday afternoon, interpreting the often bizarre-seeming Republican primary season by using his political theory of low-information rational voting.

Donald Trump isn’t just any celebrity or businessman, Mr. Popkin says. The candidate came into the primaries already enjoying street cred with the Republican base. “He was on Monday mornings on ‘Fox & Friends’ for several years. He was a keynote speaker three times at CPAC,” says Mr. Popkin, referring to the Conservative Political Action Conference. Upon being endorsed by Mr. Trump in 2012, Mitt Romney praised his “extraordinary ability to understand how our economy works.” Ted Cruz had little but praise for Mr. Trump for much of last year.

trumpnominee2_small Trump Voters: Not So Irrational

“If you see a guy on a cooking show for a long time, you figure he knows how to cook. If you see a guy running businesses and educating people on how to run businesses, you figure he knows how to run a business,” Mr. Popkin says. The real-estate developer’s years of media appearances helped promote the Trump brand as a mark of prestige.

Mr. Popkin adds that Mr. Trump increased his cachet with the Republican base five years ago by challenging the basis for President Obama’s U.S. citizenship. Mr. Trump, he says, spoke to GOP voters’ gut feeling that President Obama wasn’t a “real American.”

Mr. Trump’s smearing of other candidates may be inappropriate for someone who wants to occupy the Oval Office, but such insults are the “kind of things someone might say in the locker room,” Mr. Popkin says. Mr. Trump connected with voters by acting like a bro. By promising to build a wall along the Mexican border, he also showed voters he understood their fears about illegal immigration. Unlike cultural issues such as same-sex marriage—which Mr. Cruz hit hard—a president can actually do something about immigration.

“The cultural worries” about whether Latinos “are going to be like us are really important,” says Mr. Popkin. One reason he believes Mr. Trump drew more support among the less-educated was that college graduates have interacted more with people of different cultures.

Yet well before Mr. Trump hit the campaign trail, conservative commentators, especially on talk radio, had already acculturated voters to vitriol and had moved right, particularly on immigration, apparently finding the approach good for ratings.

Mr. Popkin cites the popular Midwest talk-radio host Steve Deace, who in 2013 vilified Sen. John McCain and belittled his grueling experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam: “Standing for all the wrong things these past few years essentially nullified any purpose to his persevering through the Hanoi Hilton.” In February 2015, Mr. Deace tweeted: “Is Jeb Bush running for president or America’s Hispanic Fertility Czar?” No wonder Mr. Trump’s invective didn’t hurt him with his supporters.

In a USA Today op-ed on Thursday, Mr. Deace, a Cruz supporter, ironically blamed a “celebrity-driven culture of low-information voters,” a “feckless batch of fake conservative media stars for sale” and the conservative “idiocracy” for Mr. Trump’s success. But by Mr. Popkin’s lights, Mr. Cruz enabled his vanquisher’s victory by fracturing the Republican Party and bludgeoning his colleagues in Congress—the “Washington cartel”—as corrupt and cowardly. There could have been compromises on issues like immigration before the primaries began, Mr. Popkin says. “But anything Cruz went against hard, Rand Paul and [Marco] Rubio went against too.”

Mr. Popkin says Donald Trump reminds him of the Texas billionaire Ross Perot, who ran for president in 1992 and 1996 as a third-party candidate espousing populism, protectionism and restrictionism. In Mr. Popkin’s 2012 book “The Candidate,” he notes that “Perot’s credibility as a self-made man persuaded many voters that he knew enough about government to fix things.”

“The less trust you have in the insiders, the more likely you are to turn to an outsider,” Mr. Popkin says. “The less you trust your doctor, the more likely you are to get a second opinion.” Mr. Trump’s second opinion confirmed what voters wanted to believe: that entitlements could be fixed without cutting benefits and that slapping tariffs on China and companies that move jobs overseas could revive growth.

Even though voters use logic to make inferences, Mr. Popkin underscores that “reasoning and rational don’t mean right,” and that “passion can overrule the fine print.” For example, “If you love somebody enough, you’ll ignore the problem they’ve never had a job or they’re not divorced yet.”

Reasonable Republicans remain as divided as ever on Mr. Trump. On Thursday, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that at this point he’s “not ready” to support the presumptive GOP nominee, which elicited jeers at a Trump rally in West Virginia. Can Mr. Trump win over conservative skeptics?

“There’s no way to unify the party except to be a better candidate,” Mr. Popkin says. “Parties don’t unify by themselves. Parties unify when people start to believe the guy’s OK,” he adds. Mr. Trump has to “grow up” and “act like he knows he has to go to Congress” to do certain things. “I don’t know if he can do it.”

If it’s any consolation, Mr. Popkin doesn’t believe that Mr. Trump will permanently destroy the Republican Party. “He got enough votes to take over the party for a year,” he says. “I think it will pass.” From time to time, parties indulge extreme candidates, which Mr. Popkins considers unhealthy because it “makes it harder for the other side to be reasonable.”

He estimates the chances of Mr. Trump’s defeating Hillary Clinton at 1 in 6—better than Mr. Popkin would give to Mr. Cruz if he had won the nomination. “Name a state that Cruz would win that Trump would lose,” he says, while it’s possible, if unlikely, that Mr. Trump could win states such as Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that wouldn’t have gone for Mr. Cruz.

If Mr. Trump loses in November, Mr. Popkin expects that Mr. Cruz and many other Republicans will say the lesson of the election is that the GOP needs to nominate a true conservative. Will the Texas senator cast himself as the conservative hero who dared to take on Donald Trump while other Republicans cowered? Probably a rational assumption.

Ms. Finley is an editorial writer for the Journal.