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, 2021, 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.

Here’s the longer John C. Goodman piece.