In August, Donald Trump tried to assure mainstream Republicans that he’s not running a nakedly ethnocentric campaign by “reaching out” to the black community in a series of speeches and photo-ops. His pitch to African Americans, first delivered in a lily-white suburb of Lansing, Michigan, was, “What do you have to lose by trying something new, like Trump? You’re living in poverty, your schools are no good, you have no jobs.… What the hell do you have to lose?” (He then vowed that he would win 95 percent of the black vote, a promise that was met with loud approval by his supporters.)
Trump wasn’t just making a show of appealing to black voters with this line. His entire pitch to the American people is centered on loss. The country, led by feckless, corrupt, and incompetent elites, is going to hell, he tells us. Americans have been sold out and are being screwed over by foreigners and immigrants, and he’ll make it great again.
“What do you have to lose?” is a powerful question. It goes a long way toward explaining why Trump’s supporters seem to be impervious to their candidate’s constant reversals and frequent steps across various “third rails” of American politics.
And in the end, it’s also a question that will likely doom Trump’s campaign to failure.
At times, the 2016 campaign has proved confounding to political analysts, and that’s largely because it’s a race for which there’s no precedent—the two major parties have never before nominated a woman or a popular celebrity with zero political experience. But we can draw some insight from behavioral economics, a field where “loss aversion” is a well-established aspect of human nature. First proposed by Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman and his colleagues, loss aversion is the principle that we feel far more pain when we lose something we already have—twice as much, according to some studies—than we experience joy when we gain something of equal value. Trump’s voters are motivated to take a chance on their erratic candidate by the fact that they’ve lost—or at least they feel that they’ve lost—a lot.
Kahneman regularly asks his students how much they might need to win on a flip of a coin to risk losing $10. In strictly rational terms, the potential to win $11 on a 50-50 chance would make it a solid bet, but Kahneman consistently finds that they won’t risk it until they’re offered $20 or more. The same principle applies to high fliers. In 2013, Kahneman told The New York Times that he’d been conducting the same experiment “with executives or very rich people, asking about tossing a coin and losing $10,000 if it’s tails. And they want $20,000 before they’ll take the gamble.” Loss aversion is a critical driver of consumers’ choices—it explains why people are far more likely to avoid a $5 surcharge than go out of their way for a $5 discount.
A growing body of research suggests that loss aversion also exerts a powerful influence on our political choices. The principle goes a long way toward explaining why Trump’s message is resonating, or failing to resonate, with different groups of voters. The fear of losing what you have “matters the more you have to lose,” explains Bruce Miroff, a political scientist at the University of Albany. That may explain why Donald Trump’s support is strongest among non-college-educated white voters. Those voters may be making a desperate attempt to regain what they had. (Loss aversion explains why gamblers “chase” their losses—bet irrationally trying to recoup what the house took from them.)