Trump and Bush, Thinking Fast and Slow
Social scientists, most prominently Daniel Kahneman, have distinguished between "fast thinking," undertaken by what they call the mind's System 1, and "slow thinking," which characterizes System 2. System 1 is automatic, intuitive, focused on the present and often emotional. System 2 is deliberative, calculating, focused on the long term and emotion-free.
When it comes to investments, food and romance, it's easy to see the difference between the two. You might feel it's a terrific idea to invest a lot of money in today's hottest stock, to eat that delicious brownie (or maybe three), or to date someone who's really wrong for you -- but your System 2 tells you to lay off.
It gets a little more complicated if we apply this distinction to politicians, but it's useful nonetheless, especially in sorting out the 17 rivals for the Republican nomination. System 1 candidates get voters' juices flowing and have immediate appeal. System 2 politicians are not exactly thrilling but seem, on reflection, to be right for the job. John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan fit the first profile, while Lyndon Johnson and George H.W. Bush matched the second.
The challenge for System 1 candidates is that they tend to come off like lightweights, while System 2 candidates can seem out-of-touch, programmed or inauthentic. The System 1 types usually crash and burn, while System 2 politicians often fail to attract the necessary enthusiasm.
Many presidential elections can be understood in this light. In 1960, Kennedy seemed energetic and full of charisma, with a clear System 1 campaign theme: "A time for greatness." He faced Richard Nixon, a System 2 candidate who trumpeted his knowledge and experience.
Kennedy had to overcome the charge that he lacked the necessary gravitas. For System 1 candidates, the trick is to get a permission slip from the nation's System 2, by showing that the candidate is not merely appealing but also capable of sound analysis and making good substantive choices. Kennedy did exactly that.
Reagan faced similar obstacles. He was able to defeat Jimmy Carter partly because his strong debate performances gave him that permission slip, but also because the 1980 election was a terrific time for a System 1 candidate, with a stumbling economy and an ongoing foreign policy humiliation (the Iran hostage crisis). In 2008, Barack Obama was emphatically a System 1 candidate, helped by the financial crisis. He obtained his permission slip partly on the strength of excellent debate performances against John McCain.
Some periods strongly favor System 2 politicians. After Kennedy's assassination in 1963, Lyndon Johnson trounced Barry Goldwater because he combined strong moral commitments with what seemed to be a safe and steady hand. After Reagan's generally popular presidency, George H.W. Bush, quintessentially System 2, won election with the help of his plea for continuity and a "kinder, gentler nation." If System 1 candidates require System 2's permission slip, System 2 contenders need some emotional affirmation -- at least an appreciative nod -- from System 1, and especially System 1 voters, who want to find a basis for some visceral, intuitive appeal.
The 2016 campaign is shaping up as a series of battles between the two kinds of candidates. Bernie Sanders is a System 1 type; Hillary Clinton is unquestionably System 2. (Joe Biden's high energy and his unscripted quality make him a System 1 guy, even if he is a sitting vice president.) But the Republican side is a lot more interesting.
Donald Trump is a defining System 1 candidate -- as pure a version as any in memory. That goes a long way toward explaining his appeal, and also the challenge he faces in the coming debates. Ben Carson, Mike Huckabee and Scott Walker (at least as a presidential candidate) belong in the same category.
Jeb Bush seems the very incarnation of System 2 -- which helps to explain the exclamation point in "Jeb!" (his campaign logo). John Kasich should be grouped with him.
Ted Cruz is harder to categorize. His take-no-prisoners, everything-is-going-to-hell attitude is all System 1, but he is also highly analytic (with an extraordinary record as a college debater). Marco Rubio and Rand Paul straddle the two categories (a bit like Bill Clinton in 1992 and George W. Bush in 2000). They're young, and they can be charismatic. But both are prone to detailed explanations; much of their appeal is intellectual.
Because System 1 candidates energize people, they always have the upper hand in the early stages of presidential primaries. Trump's unanticipated success (and Sanders's, as well) is best understood in this light. But there are strong signs that American voters, and Republicans in particular, are eager for someone who is blunt and unscripted. That creates serious trouble for System 2 candidates.
Because of his name, his experience and his resources, Jeb Bush must still be counted as the favorite. But here's a cautionary lesson from American political history: At the ballot box, as in daily life, System 1 can end up running the show.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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