Trump's Campaign is Dead (and Alive?)

Embed from Getty Images

There should be no doubt by now that the 2016 election is over, and Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States. But because the votes won't actually be tabulated and the results announced until sometime around 11 p.m. EST on November 8, Donald Trump exists in what physicists would call a state of quantum superposition: both politically doomed--and still alive--all at once.

This presidential race has officially achieved the full Schrödinger's Cat.

For the non-physics nerds out there, Erwin Schrödinger is considered one of the fathers of quantum physics, and he won the Nobel Prize in 1933. He is best known for a thought experiment meant to illustrate the difficulty of taking ideas from the quantum world (which involve sub-microscopic particles like electrons and photons) and applying them to our macro world of everyday things. In the quantum world, particles can exist in multiple states, in multiple positions, at the same time. These particles behave more like waves, which can spread out over space and don't really conform to our macro intuitions about the tangible objects we regularly see and touch.

It makes sense that we would have trouble conceiving of the quantum world; after all, humans evolved as a species to think on a macro scale, finding food and avoiding saber-toothed tigers. Imaginative thinking about quantum physics probably wasn't real useful on the African savannah.

But Mr. Schrödinger dreamed up a thought experiment involving a cat that could be simultaneously both alive and dead to explain the state of quantum superposition. In the scenario, a steel box contains a cat, a glass bottle of poisonous hydrogen cyanide, and a radioactive source. A Geiger counter measures the radioactive decay of the substance, which then triggers a hammer that breaks the bottle containing the cyanide, killing the cat. The radioactive decay is a random process, and without looking inside the box, we're left only to ponder whether the cat is dead or alive at any given moment. Until we actually open the box to check, we have to assume the cat is, as Schrödinger put it, "living and dead . . . in equal parts."

The factors that will determine the outcome of this election are not random, but Trump's candidacy is both living and dead simultaneously. Even before The Washington Post made public the Access Hollywood tape on October 7 that sent Trump's campaign into free fall, Hillary Clinton enjoyed a wide lead in the Electoral College that all but guaranteed her victory. Sam Wang's meta-margin model at Princeton Election Consortium currently pegs Clinton's probability of winning at 98 percent--practically a lock in the world of statistics. And for all of the craziness surrounding the Trump freak show, this has been the most stable race in the 65-year history of modern polling. Even without the shoes that continue to drop surrounding Trump's sexual assault allegations, polling deviations in his favor outside the historical variance are extremely unlikely with less than one month to go.

Still, much like Schrödinger's Cat, many political observers have trouble grasping how an election can already be over even before a majority of voters actually cast their ballots. But a presidential general election is not like a football game, in which one team may be a heavy favorite but theoretically anything can happen between opening kickoff and the final whistle. A better analogy is a baking cake, which is the culmination of a process over time, as ingredients are mixed and heated, ultimately determining the flavor of the final result.

If the extensive data available suggested a close race between Clinton and Trump, the outcome might still be in doubt. But the assortment of factors and chain of events that will lead to Hillary Clinton's election on November 8 have been baking into the cake all along, from fundamentals like the state of the economy, the demographics of the American electorate, and President Obama's approval ratings, to perceptions of the political parties and the candidates, including major issues, events, and news stories.

Despite Hillary's data-based good news, many Democrats seem determined to find reasons for bed-wetting. Fear of complacency seems to be the prevailing worry, and it arises from the common--but flawed--intuition people have about who votes and why. As the thinking goes, all of Trump's voters are diehard zealots, foaming at the mouth. Hillary's supporters, meanwhile, might see too many of their friends' confident Facebook posts and decide to stay home on Election Day.

But this intuition assumes people vote only out of a hyper-rational calculation that the entire election might hinge on their single vote. It also assumes there are no fair-weather Republican voters who might not go to the trouble of voting for an obviously doomed candidate. But while it is true that some voters might be guided by hyper-rational calculations like this, a growing body of research from behavioral scientists in academia and on behalf of campaigns sheds new light on what makes people vote. In 2012, the Obama campaign put its state-of-the-art analytics capabilities to maximum use, conducting endless experiments among supporters and potential voters to test fundraising pitches, tailor persuasive messages, and mobilize voters.

It turns out the hyper-rational calculation is merely one of myriad reasons why Americans bother to vote at all, despite the fact that voting takes at least some effort and is not mandated by law. In reality, all kinds of factors motivate people to vote--fear, anger, hope, elevation, solidarity. And the bandwagon effect--the chance to be on board the party train with the winner--is forceful.

In this presidential election, approximately 130 million Americans will vote. The variation on turnout will be on the margins, and that's where campaigns fight. But as Mitch Stewart, Obama's 2012 battleground states coordinator, explained, "The dirty secret of presidential elections is that a lot of people vote. You don't have to remind them."

Few insiders probably understand the results and implications of the Obama campaign's behavioral studies better than David Plouffe, the architect of the 2008 and 2012 operations. In numerous interviews, Plouffe has not been at all shy about expressing his supreme confidence in Hillary, boldly putting her odds of winning at 100 percent.

Of course, as Trump's poll numbers crater and new sexual assault allegations emerge, he may yet end his state of quantum superposition and quit the race in a fit of sour grapes. Trump insists he'll see it through to the bitter end, but we should put about as much stock in that as we do with anything else that comes out of his mouth. Which is, not much. But at this moment in time, we can be certain about one thing: Trump is a dead cat walking.